'CSHR make a difference': When charity begins at work

Walk past the HQ of an investment bank in London a few weeks ago and you might have noticed something odd – a demonstration of sorts, outside the entrance, the campaigners cordoned off from employees arriving at work, holding placards, shouting to get their message across. Were they union reps, an Occupy band or radical environmentalists?

None of the above. These were charity employees, vying for the attention of the bank's staff, soon to vote on their new 'Charity of the Year'. Five charities were involved and these had been whittled down from a list of dozens that had applied in the style of a tender for the honour of being the bank's charity partner.

Was this a crass process and an undignified experience for the charity reps, or a perfectly acceptable way for a company to choose a charity partner? The winner will benefit from fundraising to the tune of six figures, but the losers will have spent £10,000 each on the process - arguably OK for the big national non-profits, but hard to swallow for smaller charities for whom the process dominates life for several weeks.

So how do you go about choosing a charity partner in an equitable way?

First, establish the purpose of the partnership. Is it merely to engage employees in fundraising activities for a cause they like, or is to engage in an issue of strategic relevance to your business?

Sticking to the former is missing a trick; focusing on the latter will lead to business benefiting way beyond employee engagement.

Second, remember charities do not exist to service the employee engagement, reputational or any other needs of corporate bodies. Do not treat them like suppliers.

Of course, there needs to be a process, but 'requests for proposal' (yes, honestly, it does happen) are simply inappropriate; not only are they overly demanding of charity organisations that are more stretched than ever before, but they are not much use for establishing real relationships - something that is critical if you are to work with the right partner.

Which leads to the third point. Talk to potential partners. Chat over a cup of tea. Get to know them, their ways of working, their objectives, their expertise, their values. You'll discover more about the potential fit between charities and your business this way than through any formal process. Yes, it is time-consuming - but you would always invest time in establishing the right relationship, wouldn't you?

And lastly, time for humility. You might have asked why your business would want to partner with a certain charity, but have you asked why that charity would want to partner with your business? Not an easy one, that. But when you have the answer, just imagine yourself camped outside the charity's front door vying for its employees' attention so they choose to work with your company rather than another. It will change the way you think about finding a charity partner.

Jan Levy (pictured) is MD of Three Hands