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Brad Offman – Corporate Partnerships in the Social Profit Sector

By July 7th, 2023No Comments14 min read
Home » Brad Offman – Corporate Partnerships in the Social Profit Sector

There are so many things the social profit sector can do, and corporate partnerships can help them further achieve their goals. Tune into this episode as Brad Offman discusses corporate partnerships in the social profit sector. Brad is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Spire Philanthropy, a management consultancy specializing in corporate-charitable partnerships and philanthropic advisory services. In this conversation, he explains strategies corporations need to execute that are beneficial for organizational success, emphasizing the need to choose charitable partners that help strategically achieve what they’re trying to do. Brad also shares why we need to explore the relationship between the corporate and charitable sectors and the importance of identifying and onboarding new corporate partners.

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Brad Offman – Corporate Partnerships in the Social Profit Sector

Our guest is Brad Offman. He’s the CEO of Spire Philanthropy, well known across the sector all across Canada. We are thrilled to have him on the show. Welcome, Brad.

Thanks for having me.

Tell us a little bit about Spire Philanthropy and the great work that you and your team do there.

As a firm, we explore the relationship between the corporate and charitable sectors. A lot of the work that we do with charities is primarily around helping them identify and onboard new corporate partners. We do some work on the corporate side as well. We help corporations shape their community investment and social impact strategies.

For our readers, it’s probably interesting to know the other side of the table. When you are working with corporations, what are the questions that corporations are asking themselves when they are considering this sponsorship like relationships with charities?

They are asking how they can maximize the value of their partnerships. What should be the process for choosing partners? Who should make those choices, and how? Those things are changing quite rapidly in the corporate environment.

Should all charities be seeking corporate partners?

It’s not always the big firms that aren’t necessarily doing things the right way.

No, they shouldn’t. There are some charities that are very well equipped to provide partnership opportunities to corporations, while some charities aren’t. For example, if you are a charity that has the ability to provide a corporation with a lot of employee engagement or volunteer opportunities, that’s a great asset that a corporation would be interested in. If you are a charity that feels like perhaps, you don’t have any assets that would be of interest to a prospective corporate partner, then exploring a relationship with a corporation might not be the best use of your charities. There are limited resources. Let’s face it. All charities have limited resources and need to apply those resources in the areas where they are going to be able to maximize their fundraising success.

It’s an interesting phenomenon in the sector, and we could come from board members, CEOs or heads of fundraising that don’t understand how sponsorship works. They think, “The corporations do sponsorship, so we should go get some of those dollars.” It’s not as straightforward as picking up the phone. What are some ways that you recommend charities look within themselves to understand whether they are likely to be a good partner for corporations seeking sponsorship?

Assuming corporate partnerships, it is looking inward, looking at their own assets and seeing if they have things that would be of interest to prospective corporate partners. Do they have an audience that the corporation might want to speak to them? Do they have programs that are aligned with what corporations are looking to fund? Do they have employee engagement opportunities that would be of interest to a prospective corporate partner? Corporate partnerships always start with looking inward. A lot of charities tend to jump into the relationship of, “Who who should fund us? Let’s look at RBC. They have deep pockets,” without looking at what they potentially have to sell to a corporate partner.

When you are working on the other side of the table with corporations, what are the questions that those corporations are asking themselves as they are seeking to establish their sponsorship strategy?

They also need to do the same thing. They need to take a big step back, look inward and see how they develop their community investment strategies. Corporations need to choose a theme or a community investment pillar that is aligned with their own cultural values and strategic objectives. In doing so, then they need to choose charitable partners that are helping that corporation achieve what they are trying to do strategically.

Who’s doing it well on the corporate side? Where’s the standard that charities and other corporations might look to in Canada?

Everybody talks about RBC but they are also investing tremendous resources in developing their strategy. They have a large team of people. They are very well equipped to manage charitable relationships and partnerships. They are an organization that is doing it well. If you look at a small organization, perhaps they fix software. That’s an organization that’s dedicating a lot of its time and resources to developing various strategic partnerships that are aligned with their own values. It’s not always the big firms that aren’t necessarily doing things the right way.

DSP S6 16 | Corporate Partnerships

Corporate Partnerships: Corporations need to choose a theme or community investment pillar aligned with their core cultural values and their strategic objectives.

That’s encouraging. It’s not just the big dollars but the execution and the activation. Back to the charitable side, how do you recommend charities or larger organizations identify potential corporate sponsors? They’ve got a sense of their internal assets and what they have to offer. How do they take a look at the corporate environment and say, “Let’s start here or there?” What should they be asking themselves?

If they are looking for program funding, they must look at their competitors. Sometimes we don’t think that way in the charitable sector. We don’t think of like-minded organizations necessarily as competitors. The first thing that I would do if I were a charity seeing organizations that are running programs similar to mine and find corporations who are funding them. Look at their annual reports, their websites, and common theme for corporations that are supporting a variety of organizations that you might consider competitors but brainstorm.

Charities sometimes don’t tend to get overly creative in terms of thinking. There’s a knee-jerk reaction to look at some of the bigger players, the banks, Telus, and Canadian Tire. I encouraged charities to look at organizations that are probably not as prominent. Two of the biggest partnerships that we’ve worked on over the past few years have been with Catelli Pasta. That’s not an organization that necessarily comes to mind. In organizations, they are thinking about corporate partners. We are encouraged to think broadly, strategically, and creatively about who might potentially be a prospective corporate partner.

Over the last couple of years, have you heard more concerns and questions about how charities or corporations are thinking about the reputation and the organizational risk of an association with either a dastardly corporation or an imperfectly run social profit?

When charities are creating their corporate partnership strategies, they need to think about the types of organizations with whom they will and will not do business. It’s better to think about that proactively than reactively. If you are an organization that’s focused on respiratory disease, not only do you need to think about things like smoking tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, and gaming. There are a number of industries. Charities need to make those decisions before they go and reach out to prospective partners.

We’ve done our homework. We’ve got our list of the corporations who want to talk to. How should charity start? How do they take that first step in cultivating a relationship with those prospective partners?

It’s legwork. One is there’s a determination. If you have any folks, who are close to the organization, your board members, senior staff or other senior volunteers who have a relationship that you might be able to leverage. For example, if you’re seeking a relationship with CIBC and you happen to have somebody on your board who works with CIBC, you would be crazy not to at least try and leverage that relationship.

When charities actually create their corporate partnership strategies, they need to think about the types of organizations with whom they will and will not do business.

The other piece of leg work, research, and outreach, there are no shortcuts when it comes to developing corporate partnerships. There’s no low-hanging fruit. There are no quick wins. This takes time. It’s laborious. There’s a lot of rejection that comes along the way. There are a lot of people who won’t respond to you. You have to be incredibly tenacious and resilient when you are trying to develop corporate partnerships.

Is that realization of how hard the journey is and how long the path is? Is that something that’s well understood in the sector?

It’s well understood by fundraisers. I’m not sure if it’s overly well understood by boards. I still hear from boards, “Go to RBC. They are a highly profitable corporation.” Surely they would have some funds to give to our great cause but at the staff level, especially individuals who have a lot of experience in trying to develop corporate partnerships, they understand how incredibly difficult it is to do and how long it takes.

There hasn’t been that in-person events haven’t been happening. Is it taking longer to cultivate those relationships in our time?

I think it is. That’s a product of increased demand in the corporate sector. A lot of corporations have been rethinking and changing their social impact strategies as a result because they don’t have a cohesive strategy. They are taking more time to respond to prospective charitable partners. If the average time to develop a corporate partnership was originally eighteen months, it’s probably taking a little bit longer now.

What has changed as a result of the pandemic? There has been the opportunity to pause on both sides of that conversation for the social profits, for the corporations. Are people asking each other different questions? What has the pandemic brought us to when it comes to corporate partnerships?

One thing that we’ve seen is a lot of corporations have used the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink their community investment or social impact strategies. They’ve had some time. It’s made them realize some of the shortcomings in their existing strategies. As a result, corporations have taken that big proverbial step back but the one thing that charities need to understand is that these corporations need a long time to think of a strategy.

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Corporate Partnerships: Assuming corporate partnerships is about looking inward, looking at their own assets, and seeing if they have things that interest prospective corporate partners.

Most companies spend 1 or 2 years developing a strategy. If you have seen some of the new programs like ScotiaRISE and TD Ready Commitment, those organizations took a long time to develop. The pandemic perpetuated the number of corporations that were rethinking their approach to community investment because they wanted to create more impact. They wanted to be strategic and recognize some growing trends around diversity, inclusion, and equity that they wanted to incorporate into their social impact strategies.

Is it better for a corporation in considering their strategy to make one big investment like CIBC has done with the Run for the Cure or is it to spread it around and have relationships with multiple organizations across the social profit sector?

I’m not sure what’s better. I like when corporations work with a number of different charitable partners. There are a lot of great national organizations like the Canadian Cancer Society, which runs the run for the cure event but there are also some great opportunities to create partnerships at the local level. It allows employees at the local level to forge relationships with those charities. It allows local employee engagement or volunteering opportunities to be created at the local level. It’s nice to have both, maybe to have one single national partner, a large partner but it’s important for corporations when they can to forge relationships with local community organizations.

That’s good advice for corporations and some good insight for leaders of social profits that may be looking at corporate sponsorships. We talked a little bit about how the idea of corporate charitable partnerships has changed over the course of the pandemic. You’ve put together an exciting conference called The Partnership Conference that’s going to bring experts together from both sides of the aisle. Tell us a little bit about that conference and where you got the idea.

The partnership conference does exactly that. It explores the relationship between the corporate sector and the charitable sector. It brings people from both sides together to have those conversations. The idea for the conference emanated from the fact that there were conferences on both sides of the equation. The charitable sector had a number of conferences.

The corporate sector had a number of conferences that we are bringing together social impact professionals, especially in the United States but there wasn’t a place where the corporate and charitable sectors could come together to share ideas, talk about the latest trends, and iterations of corporate charitable partnerships.

It’s important to physically come together, especially in the post-pandemic world, and meet each other and create relationships between people who are working on the fundraising side and social impact professionals or working on the corporate side. It’s unique. It’s the only conference in Canada at least that brings together individuals from both sides of the table.

You have to be incredibly tenacious and resilient when you’re trying to develop corporate partnerships.

You ran this conference in a virtual way over the course of the pandemic. This is bringing people together in person. What are you hoping to teach and get people talking about when they come together?

You posted a question earlier, “What’s changed as a result of the pandemic?” A lot has changed. The purpose of the conference is to explore the latest and greatest in corporate charitable partnerships. We want people, and even people who have been operating in the space for years, to understand what’s new, what’s changed, especially as the result of the pandemic, and how they can take their own respective programs, whether they are on the corporate or the charitable side to the next level.

Who should attend? Our readers are primary leaders in the social profit sector. They are learning a lot from you through our conversation and want to know more. Who from the organization should attend?

Typically the senior fundraiser or the person who will receive if they are exploring and trying to grow their corporate partnership.

It sounds like you are going to have quite a great from both the corporate side and the social profit side at the conference. Many of our readers are leaders in social profit organizations. If they read this, they want to learn more about who from their organization should attend?

Senior fundraisers are, typically would attend by a social profit organization, chief development officers, and people who oversee the corporate partnership portfolio. The conference provides an opportunity not only to learn from their peers in the social profit sector but also to meet individuals who are managing social impact portfolios on the corporate side.

I appreciate that, and I’m sure our readers will appreciate learning more about that. If they want to learn more about the conference, where can they find out more details?

DSP S6 16 | Corporate Partnerships

Corporate Partnerships: Corporations need to choose charitable partners that are helping that corporation achieve what they’re trying to do strategically.

The website is It provides information about the agenda and the ability to register for the conference.

As we move away from the conference for just a little bit, one of my favorite things on the show I think about is the magic wand moment. If there was one thing you could change about corporate charitable partnerships in Canada, what would that be and why?

The one thing that I would change would probably be transparency on the corporate side. All corporations could truly articulate exactly what they are looking for in a charitable partner. It would make this work a lot easier. The challenge is corporations don’t always do that. As a result, a lot of charities spend a lot of time seeking partnerships from corporations where there’s no opportunity available. That would make things a lot easier if corporations could be a little bit more transparent and public in terms of what they are seeking in a charitable partnership.

What gets in the way of that? Is that something that the corporations themselves don’t know or is there a trade secret that they are trying to protect by not making that known to the larger community?

One, they don’t know. They truly don’t recognize the importance of doing that. A lot of corporations don’t recognize the resource constraints under which charities work. As a result, they don’t necessarily spend a lot of their time making things easier for charities. It’s a classic case of not knowing enough about the folks on the other side of the fence.

Everybody should come to The Partnership Conference then.

That’s exactly what we are trying to do. 

Brad, I appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to share your perspective on corporate charitable partnerships in Canada and what’s changing and sharing the good news about the conference on September 20th and 21st, 2022, in Toronto. Thanks for being on the Discovery Pod.

It’s my pleasure. Thanks for your time.

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About Brad Offman

Brad Offman is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Spire Philanthropy, a management consultancy specializing in corporate-charitable partnerships and philanthropic advisory services. Brad is also a co-founder and Chief Curator of the Partnership Conference.  

He is the former Senior Vice President, Strategic Philanthropy at Mackenzie Investments, former President of the Mackenzie Investments Charitable Foundation. Prior to joining Mackenzie, Brad served as Vice President, Development at the Toronto Community Foundation. 

Brad sits on the Board of Directors of the V-42 Foundation, the CAGP Foundation and Benefaction Foundation. He is a past member of the National Advisory Council for Imagine Canada and a past board member of Philanthropic Foundations Canada and the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Brad holds a Master’s Degree in Business Administration and a Master of Arts Degree from the University of Toronto and a First Class Honours Bachelor of Arts Degree from McGill University in Montreal. He also proudly holds the Master Financial Advisor – Philanthropy designation.