March 24, 2017
 
Corporate Partnership Is a Win for Everybody

By Jay W. Vogt

October 30, 2012 — Triangle, Inc., a Malden-based nonprofit serving people with disabilities, has developed a thriving corporate partnership, which, among other things, has produced an innovative funding stream that today covers nearly 10% of the organization’s annual operating expenses.

Over the last four years, Triangle has teamed with The Clarks Companies, N. A., shoe company, headquartered in Newton, generating $2.4 million during that time and on track to produce $750,000 this year.

The real story here is the deep relationship that gives rise to such innovations, and has changed the cultures of both organizations; but first, some details on this remarkable funding stream.

Clarks sells wholesale but also has its own retail stores. From September to December they offer every customer who buys a pair of shoes a chance to buy a coupon for $5 that gives them a significant discount on a second pair of shoes. The salespeople sell it as a donation to Triangle, since every cent goes to the nonprofit. The customers see it as a way to do good while gaining a discount on a second pair of shoes. And the company sees it as a way to build customer loyalty and gain a repeat sale. Everybody wins.

This money is not really a corporate donation, because the funds come from customers. It is not really an individual donation, since Triangle has no contact with the donors. And it is not really earned income, because Triangle provides no service. Call it a mission-based, customer-funded, company marketing campaign.

Every year the shoe company’s retail management team meets staff and clients at Triangle, and retreats to a boardroom to set their goal for the year. Every year it is higher, and every year they exceed it.

Triangle and the shoe company collaborate on quick communications to retail store employees throughout the season to convey the Triangle mission. When Mike Rodrigues, Triangle’s CEO, walks unannounced into these stores and asks about the coupon, the employees always tell him the Triangle story, in their own words.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” says Mike. In effect, every shoe person in these stores is a seasonal ambassador for Triangle’s mission, and every customer gets introduced to the nonprofit. And this awareness campaign costs Triangle almost nothing.

The shoe people love it. Bob Miller, senior vice president for retail says, “I have part-time shoe people making $20,000 who come up to me and say, 'I can’t afford to make my own contribution, but thank you for letting me sell these coupons. I love doing my part.’”

Triangle builds the campaign’s stated goal into its annual operating budget, but commits to spend any amount raised over goal on innovation. Not only has this campaign given Triangle the cushion it has needed to come through this recession stronger than ever, it has given Triangle funds to break new ground. Campaign funds helped launch AbleVision, for example, Triangle’s national award-winning media and television program created and produced entirely by people with disabilities.

This innovation arose effortlessly from a deep relationship built over more than a decade, beginning with a senior executive serving on Triangle’s board. One of Triangle’s clients was a talented young man recovering from a head injury, and Mike asked if he could gain work reentry experience as an intern at the shoe company. Clarks said yes, and the experience was so positive and transformative, that the company created an ongoing six-month internship program for people with disabilities entering or reentering the workforce. They also hired this young man as a permanent employee. The internship program created an intimate cultural bond between these two organizations.

At another point, the shoe company wanted a package of shoe care products to sell in its retail stores. Triangle clients started producing these products at their facility-based employment center. These Triangle-branded products were steady sellers in company stores long before the coupon idea was born, creating a strong economic bond between these two organizations.

This thriving corporate/nonprofit partnership began with the personal relationship between two senior executives, one a Triangle board member and one its president. The internship program established a broader cultural connection between the office workers at the shoe company and Triangle’s clients. The production contract made a deeper economic connection between client workers at Triangle and the company’s customers. Finally, the coupon campaign has engaged the company’s retail sales force as Triangle mission advocates to their customers, while contributing three-quarters of a million unrestricted dollars to Triangle’s operating expenses.

Jay W Vogt, president of Peoplesworth, is author of Recharge Your Team: The Grounded Visioning Approach. Contact Jay at jay@peoplesworth.com.

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