How to Pitch Corporate Clients as a Social Enterprise — Behind the Scenes with Microsoft Philanthropies

Alexandra Nemeth

Senior Manager, Content Marketing & Storytelling at MovingWorlds

Now more than ever, Global corporations are investing in social impact initiatives to drive systemic change. It seems that not a week goes by without a major brand declaring that they too will be carbon neutral by 2030 or have pay parity by 2025. In order to achieve these sustainability and equity targets, which are now getting real investments from the C-level, companies need partners to help them achieve these targets. This presents a clear opportunity for social entrepreneurs to diversify and grow their revenues. However, the process of finding the right decision-makers at these companies represents a real challenge

In our last S-GRID webinar, we had the opportunity to go behind the scenes of Microsoft Philanthropies with Global Director of Strategic Partnerships Erin Burchfield and Director of AI & Global Partnerships Scott Mauvais. Erin and Scott lent insight into Microsoft’s philanthropic focus and approach to collaborating with social enterprises, as well as best practices for social entrepreneurs on the other side of the negotiating table to use when engaging with large corporations like Microsoft. 

See the practical guidance and insights they shared in the full recap below!

Microsoft’s Approach to Philanthropy 

Global companies like Microsoft create tremendous growth and value, but that value is not necessarily equally distributed. As Erin explained, “We and our peers and competitors are driving systemic change (through the technology products and solutions we bring to market). If we are helping create the change, we have a responsibility to make sure that the benefits are equally distributed – for example, around access to technology.” 

For that reason, Microsoft does a lot of work around skilling and capacity building, one of its core Philanthropic focus areas. Like many companies, Microsoft has focused its Philanthropic investments in key areas aligned to its corporate vision, business model, and opportunity to create impact. Specifically, Microsoft’s philanthropic focus accrues to four of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: 

Microsoft drives these changes forward by both engaging its employees and investing in nonprofits, startups, and other community partners to help take the innovative solutions they are building to scale. 

Last year, Microsoft added to its suite of philanthropic initiatives by launching the Microsoft Global Social Entrepreneurship Program as an extension of its startup ecosystem. Erin explained, “We already support startups, and for those startups that have a social impact focus, we should do even more as part of the company’s commitment to support social good initiatives. Above and beyond Microsoft’s core offering for startups, we’re really leaning into the social enterprise space and will continue to lean into it more moving forward.”

From Microsoft’s perspective, investing in social entrepreneurs is also a way to link its philanthropic goals to its commercial customers. Social entrepreneurs deliver innovations that have the potential to help Microsoft’s commercial customers solve problems, like traceability in supply chain or innovations in health care. Through this new program, Microsoft facilitates those connections and helps develop shared initiatives with cohesive cultural and internal alignment across its partners. For example, one commercial problem facing Microsoft is the need for more talent in cybersecurity. By developing partnerships with upskilling organizations like i.c. stars that teach those skills, Microsoft is able to further its own talent acquisition and workforce development goals while also meeting its philanthropic commitment to invest resources into innovative social enterprises in their community.

Best Practices for Pitching Your Social Enterprise to a Company like Microsoft

So, how can your social enterprise land a partnership with an industry leading corporation like Microsoft? Erin and Scott walked us through a suggested five-step process, with practical insights you can apply at each step.

Step 1: Find companies that align on philanthropic priorities

Both Erin and Scott emphasized the importance of doing your research. Find and read annual reports, investor/earnings calls, sustainability reports, and other publicly-available disclosures and publications related to the company you are thinking about approaching. As Erin explained, “there is more interest than ever at the Fortune 1000 level in talking about what your company is doing to really contribute back to society, and that is becoming infused in these earnings reports and shareholder meetings. It’s something consumers are really paying attention to, and as a result, so are companies. That info is available, and though you may have to sift through to find it, it’s out there.”

As mentioned above, Microsoft’s philanthropic priorities are anchored in four specific SDGs. If your social enterprise is also working on solving a problem in one of these areas, then you’ve got the strategic alignment you need to proceed to the next step. Other companies will often highlight the SDGs they are focusing on in their sustainability/CSR pages and even their financial reports which you can find on company pages related to “investor relations”.

Step 2: Identify who the key partners are in the ecosystem

Once you have identified a potential corporate partner whose sustainability, equity, and social impact priorities are strategically aligned with your work, it’s time to learn more about how that company is already engaging in the space. That involves asking yourself questions like:

  • Who/what do they already fund?
  • What specific projects/areas do they fund?
  • Are there gaps/similarities between those projects and the kind of work your social enterprise does? 
  • What trade organizations are they already a part of? What are their societal goals?
  • Are there local geographies? 

In addition to this top-down approach, Erin also suggests the “inverse lookup” method. Start by researching other mission-aligned players in the space with a similar offering as your social enterprise. Visit their websites and see who their corporate partners are, and the kinds of programs these corporate partners offer. Then ask yourself questions like:

  • What makes our offering nuanced or different (i.e. geographically focused, slightly different end users)?
  • How can our differentiating factor provide that corporate partner with even more value or benefit?

Looking at it from other social enterprises’ point of view is a great way to gain insight into how you can position your offering as a way to augment what the corporate partner has already committed to and invested in. Even if this doesn’t lead to an immediate direct partnership with that corporation, you might end up building a partnership with one of these mission-aligned NGOs, social enterprises, or other entities that is already working with that company, giving you a foot in the door.

Step 3: Identify and navigate to internal champions

An internal champion is an employee of the target corporation who can advocate for your social enterprise. Scott explained that at Microsoft, “employee voices matter. If an employee works or volunteers with a potential social enterprise partner, it gives our company a window into what they do and serves almost as a pre-vetting. A social enterprise that is a known entity internally is more likely to be invested in. Starting with employee investment first is a great route ‘in’ that can be bumped up to corporate-level investment later.”

So how do you get an internal champion? Start by understanding how people want to engage. Particularly in the current social climate, people have an appetite to do something and take action, so you need to create that opportunity. Erin suggests building a Board of Directors, Advisory Team, and/or network of people who are invested in you and can help you with introductions to their networks. “When you build (or expand) a Board, you should be thinking about how those board members can connect you. Remember to be clear about the benefits, gives, and gets. Recruiting a Director or Senior Manager from the corporation you’re targeting to serve on your board is often a much better way to make an ask of a company.” Scott also added that it helps to find individuals within your target corporation who are tied to a specific metric, geographic entity, or cause. Even if these are second-degree connections, finding a known entity with brand recognition to help make the introduction can go a long way. 

While it is hard to find the right internal champion, it is critical. So keep networking, searching, reading articles, following social media, and attending events to find the right people to try and get in touch with, and then reach out to them – not with a sales pitch, but with the desire to connect to learn more about their goals and challenges. This is the insight you’ll need to refine your value proposition as we shared in the earlier webinar, Lessons from a Social Enterprise With a Successful Business Model Pivot featuring Louise Bleach from Desolenator.

Step 4: Understand your value proposition for that particular partner

If you’ve done your research in the previous steps, by now you should have a clear understanding of what your target corporate partner is trying to get out of the arrangement: What areas have they committed to investing in? Are they looking to support a particular issue? Is there a location or demographic they are specifically focused on?

Once you understand what the corporation is trying to achieve through a potential partnership, make sure you position your social enterprise as driving THAT issue forward in a new or better way. This isn’t the same thing as your mission statement or general value proposition; it’s an adaptation of those things that gets to the real business value from the corporation’s point of view. Frame your offering into what the funder is trying to ‘buy.’

This step is all about the transaction. As counterintuitive as it may sound, Erin and Scott suggest that for this step you “divorce yourself from your own social goals and really get down to how your offering is going to help this corporation actually drive their own bottom line revenue.” 

To illustrate the difference, Erin raised the example of approaching an international professional services company. How do you motivate a large consulting firm to care about working with social enterprises? One option would be to pitch the marketing and brand-building opportunity it presents. However, if you take the approach suggested by Erin and Scott, you instead start with a real business need, which leads us to a much more effective ‘pitch’. This means understanding the core business objectives of the company you’re targeting. For a large consultancy, the company’s competitive advantage and business model relies on the value of its employee base of consultants. As the cost of turnover is high, the business has a need to hire and retain great talent. With this in mind, a better pitch would be that working with social enterprises, or investing in social-good projects in the nonprofit sector, will lead to more engaged consultants, which ultimately saves the company money on employee hiring, engagement, and retention. Of course, this will depend on who you are talking to in the company, so make sure to align your value proposition to the company and the specific person you are speaking with.

The bottom line? An effective value proposition shows how the corporation’s profit and loss statement will benefit from working with your social enterprise. Your chances of success are highest if you dig into the real cost savings and business value accrued to your potential partner.

Step 5: Craft a relevant and fine-tuned proposal

Once you’ve customized your value proposition, it’s time to write a well-tuned proposal for each potential partner. Both Erin and Scott emphasized that this customization is key: each proposal should demonstrate that you’ve done your research and know the areas that company has investments in already, and how your social enterprise is a similar or superior option to help them further their business goals. Above all, steer clear of the copy/paste approach where you broadcast the same sales pitch to multiple potential partners. The recipient reading it can tell it is a generic pitch, and it conveys that you aren’t listening to the needs of your target audience. 

While the way you talk about your offering will change depending on your audience, one caveat Scott and Erin shared is not to stretch too far to the point where you’re compromising your core values. When it comes to customization, you’re not changing your social enterprise’s focus, just how you talk about it. “Don’t just chase funding, make sure it aligns with your core values,” Erin advised.

With your proposal perfected, the last thing you need to do is figure out how your partner wants to engage. Some corporations use a Request for Proposal (RFP) process, some are looking for more co-innovation co-creation of a proposal together to see how each partner could bring complementary resources, while others accept proposals on a rolling basis and batch review them every quarter. 

It takes time and effort to customize proposals, so the more networking you can do to align your proposal to the person and the organization, the more effective you’ll be in this process.

Partnership building is hard work, but companies like Microsoft are looking to build more bridges with the social enterprise sector. Keep these 5 steps in mind to help you connect with the right potential partner(s):

  1. Find companies that align on philanthropic priorities
  2. Identify who the key partners are in the ecosystem
  3. Identify and navigate to internal champions
  4. Understand your value proposition for that particular partner
  5. Craft a relevant and fine-tuned proposal

We’re grateful to Erin and Scott for generously sharing their time, perspectives, and unique insights with our community of innovators! Looking for more support landing a corporate client like Microsoft? Apply to S-GRID, our revenue growth program for social enterprises.