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“Partnerships are a superpower every tech nonprofit has. If you bring the right people and organizations along with you on your journey, these relationships will propel both you and your partners on your paths to impact.”

Hillary Baker Draper, Director of Strategic Partnerships, Fast Forward

Founder, you’re in this to thrive, not just survive. To make a massive impact, you’re going to need to bring some partners along for the journey. “Partners” means companies and other organizations, yes – but most importantly, it means humans who believe in your work and are committed to helping you do it. 

Sustainability looks different for every tech nonprofit. The common denominator, though, is partnerships. Whether you partner with corporations, government agencies, or community-based organizations, or have an earned revenue model, an important part of your job is building mutually beneficial relationships that power your work. 

The thought of finding a sustainable model might sound pretty daunting right now, but fear not – we’re here to break it down, from being an all-star partner to determining if an earned revenue model is right for you. Ready? Let’s go!

Basics of Nonprofit Partnerships 

Nonprofit partnerships come in all shapes and sizes. Early on, figure out who you want to partner with and why. Think about not only what you need in order to accomplish your goals, but how other organizations can gain value by partnering with you. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What’s your vision for the world, and how does your product fit in? What steps do you need to take to get there? 
  • What types of organizations share similar goals and can help you realize this vision? 
  • Think about your value add; what types of organizations would benefit from partnering with you in your work? 
  • Who already partners with (and in some cases, funds) organizations like yours? Can you accomplish something better, or using fewer resources?

In this chapter, we’ll dive into three types of partnerships:

  1. Corporate partnerships.
  2. Partnerships with government, nonprofit, or community organizations.
  3. Earned revenue partnerships.

You can activate one, two, or all three types of partnerships. Figuring out your strategic partnerships model may ebb and flow as your organization evolves and that’s okay. Whatever gets you closest to your true north.

Corporate Partnerships

So why partner with corporates? Doing so can give you access to more than just capital, with benefits ranging from collaborating on a product feature, to enlisting employees as volunteers. Corporates are in search of you just as much as you are of them – they need awesome, aligned nonprofits to support their philanthropy goals. Increasingly, companies share a key purpose with you: to use their resources to have a positive impact.

CommonLit’s Differentiator is Partnerships With Publishers

Michelle Brown likes to say: “low-level readers are not low-level thinkers.” The founder of CommonLit, the free literacy and reading platform for students and teachers, Brown leveraged this belief to secure interesting, relevant content to engage students – content from the likes of The Guardian, PBS, and NPR. In the early days of CommonLit, Michelle negotiated royalty-free licenses from top publishers for CommonLit to use on its platform. The outcome was engaged student participation, and inspiration to continue along their reading journey. 

These partnerships are core to CommonLit’s differentiation. Other for-profit companies offer similar products, but don’t have the same exciting content as CommonLit. With limited nonprofit funding, CommonLit’s publisher partnerships are a perfect example of how corporate partnerships can benefit tech nonprofits in a variety of ways.

You already know that fundraising is all about relationship-building. While fundraising isn’t necessarily synonymous with corporate partnerships, the principle is the same: partnerships are built off relationships and your ability to align your work to the values and impact goals of companies.

How to Find Corporate Partners

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of overlap between finding corporate partners and finding donors – which you’re an expert at, thanks to Chapter 7: Tech Nonprofit Fundraising. The following strategies – which we discussed in Chapter 7 – hold true for finding corporate partners:

  • Target companies for which you can fill a need through “selling” your product or opportunity (more on Earned Revenue later in this chapter!).
  • Do your research, like checking out the Partners/Funders section of organizations that are similar to yours to see who supports them.
  • Leverage your network by asking for referrals from existing partners, asking for introductions from your board of directors, and using LinkedIn to map a connection to target partners.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: warm intros are best. Corporate philanthropy teams talk to each other. If you can, get in the door with a company through a mutual connection. If this person can champion and vouch for you, even better.

In the beginning, play the field! Test out low-stakes partnerships with multiple companies. See which relationships work, which offerings are attractive to partners, and who is excited to grow their partnership with you. Once you validate your learnings, focus on fewer, larger partnerships, which have greater potential for impact (bonus: it’s easier to delight fewer partners). There’s no one right way to do partnerships, so make sure you consider the tradeoffs between having few or many partners and big or small partnerships. Your secret sauce will be unique to you, and is going to take time to perfect!

Government, Nonprofit, and Community Organization Partnerships

Want to reach new users? (Duh, always.) Hoping to multiply your impact, visibility, and advocacy efforts? (Yeah, of course.) Looking to launch a new product? (WHY YES!) Well kick that nonprofit judo into gear, because your ticket to all of this is partnering with community organizations.

As a tech nonprofit, you stand to add value to other organizations because you’re built for scale. Partnerships can help you reach new users by allowing you to tap into the communities these organizations are already integrated with. Beyond growing your user base, remember that you’re not working in a vacuum. Ask yourself how you can advance your impact by collaborating with other groups whose work or mission overlaps with yours. 

To find high-potential partners, a helpful question to consider is: which groups and channels are organizations already frequenting? Embedding yourself in the right circles within your sector can give you access to potential partners. EducationSuperHighway, the tech nonprofit that successfully brought high-speed Internet to every public school classroom in America, realized the government agencies and school district leaders it wanted to partner with were part of the same trade associations. By making an initial connection with these groups, EducationSuperHighway gained introductions to multiple target partners (hello warm intros!).

Let’s take a look at some successful community organization partnerships (see Chapter 3: Nonprofit Judo for additional examples).

Tech Nonprofit Winning Nonprofit Partnership Strategy
Upsolve

Problem: Upsolve, which helps low-income Americans file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, was looking for ways to reach more low-income New Yorkers who needed help filing.

Solution: The Upsolve team connected with local legal aid organizations for their waitlists. The legal aid organizations were thrilled to help more people, and Upsolve gained access to more users in need of their product.

UPchieve

Problem: On-demand tutoring platform UPchieve needed more student users to help prove the efficacy of its product.

Solution: UPchieve teamed up with after school programs to spread the word about its service to target users. This partnership helped the organization gain the users it needed to validate its idea.

JustFix.nyc

Problem: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a range of challenges for tenants in New York City and around the country. From tenants being unable to pay rent to being forced to do all court filings digitally, housing justice organization JustFix.nyc wanted to help. 

Solution: Through partnerships with legal services and tenant advocacy organizations, JustFix.nyc launched two new tools to support tenants during COVID-19. NoRent.org, built in partnership with Right to the City Alliance, Movement Law Lab, and MH Action, helps tenants create and mail a formal letter to notify a landlord of nonpayment of rent.

JustFix.nyc also partnered with the housing court system in NYC to create a new tool, adapted from its existing product, that helps tenants take immediate legal action against landlords for emergency harassment or repair issues that endanger their health and safety, right from their phones or computers.

How to Be a Great Partner

There’s an art to being a great partner. Think of the people behind the partnership as critical thought-partners to your work. Being a great partner is about delighting the people you work with through respect, collaboration, and communication.

Tactics That Will Make You a Stellar Partner

Make it easy for partners by being respectful of their time.
  • Prewrite any materials or assets for partners.
  • Be prompt in your turnaround of deliverables.
  • Be responsive via email and any other communications (ideally within 12-24 hours).
Build trust.
  • Have a customer service orientation towards your partners. 
  • Always acknowledge your partner’s perspective – do your best to remedy any misunderstandings or dissatisfaction, rather than giving excuses.
  • Honor your partners’ expertise and have humility about what you do and don’t know. Lean on your partners for their expertise, and trust that they will do the same for you.
Go above and beyond.
  • Always under-promise and over-deliver. 
  • Before you have an idea or project that’s fully baked, put it in front of partners to get their feedback. Let them know they’re getting an early view and that you’d love to hear their thoughts (while being respectful of their time, as always!).
Don’t be shy about conveying your value.
  • Always keep the needs and goals of your partner in mind. Word things using their lingo and share what they stand to gain from your partnership. 
  • Long-term partnerships are almost always win-win. Check-in regularly to make sure things are working well on both ends. Highlight mutual benefits and promote them to your partners in an authentic way. 
  • Give your partners visibility by highlighting your partnership through marketing. Whether it’s mentioning them in thought leadership articles or promoting their work on social media, they’ll appreciate that extra recognition.
Capitalize on the people aspect of nonprofit partnerships.
  • Partnerships are way more fun when you lean into a key ingredient: relationship-building. When appropriate, take opportunities to connect on a human level. 
  • Accommodate each partner’s work style. The more you can learn and adapt to how your partners communicate, the better.
  • Schedule regular check-in meetings with partners without an ask. Update them on your work while fostering that connection! The cadence should depend on the partner’s preferences. 
  • Champion your partners. Whenever you can, make them look good – tell others how much you love working with them, shout them out on LinkedIn…you get the drill.

Build Relationships Across Organizations 

Picture this: you’ve secured an amazing partner and everything is going really well – and then your point of contact leaves. We know, we know. So prepare for this. Staff transitions are inevitable (and not uncommon when working with partners). To maintain your partnership through a staff transition, make sure you have more than one point of contact within the organization. Get buy-in from all the people you’ve worked with, from top decision makers to program executors. If one of your key contacts is leaving, ask for intros to whoever is taking their place.  

The same goes for the top of the partnerships funnel. A big part of your work is to cultivate relationships with potential partners. Think about ways to engage non-monetarily, because though they may not have the budget for more fiscal partnerships right now, you want them to think of you first when they do! 

Pro tip

If one of your key points of contact at a partner company is leaving, view it as a partnership opportunity with their new company. If you delight someone, they won’t forget it – so keep up relationships with folks in the field even after your partnership ends.

Earned Revenue: How to Make Money as a Nonprofit

Earned revenue, or a fee-for-service model, can be a path to sustainability for some tech nonprofits. Repeat: some tech nonprofits. If, like most tech nonprofits with earned revenue models, you stumble into a product-market fit where someone wants to pay for your product, great! But it’s not the only way.

As we’ve said: impact is your north star, no matter what. A danger of earned revenue models is that impact can fall to the wayside. When done right, earned revenue models power and further your impact in the world – they should never replace it. It’s worth noting that employing an earned revenue model doesn’t mean you can or should stop fundraising. Earned revenue will always be just part of your business model – and should never be your main goal.

Pro tip

Start with fundraising. Your earned revenue plan – even if you have an idea for a successful model from the get-go – likely won’t come to fruition until later. Focusing on fundraising first will help you prioritize impact, your #1.

Quill’s Data-Centric Earned Revenue Model

Quill, the writing and grammar platform for students, found an earned revenue model to support a core part of its mission: to make its curriculum 100% free. While Quill’s product is free for everyone (and always has been), it built out a premium service capitalizing on district administrators’ hunger for data on student learning and progress. 

Quill’s premium service sells school and district-wide reports on how students are progressing on Quill’s platform. Some education leaders who have a vested interest in the success of students and teachers – like principals and district administrators – are able to pay for these highly desired data. Most importantly, these partnerships help Quill keep its product completely free for teachers and students.

Quill hasn’t always had a premium service. Founder and Executive Director Peter Gault emphasizes the importance of first building a robust free product and attracting a solid user base, before pursuing an earned revenue model. Quill validated its base product, funded mostly through philanthropy, and gained over 2 million student users before it began developing its premium service.

Earned Revenue Takeaways with Quill Founder Peter Gault

  1. To develop an earned revenue model, ask yourself: who am I trying to serve? Who else in that world has a vested interest in these beneficiaries and the resources to pay? 
  2. Be intentional about what parts of your product are free and paid. Always prioritize impact when thinking through this decision. 
  3. Data is valuable and desired. Consider building your earned revenue model around what data stakeholders want. Work closely with partners to figure out what exactly these key data points are, and keep iterating until you land on a package that best aligns with stakeholders’ work.

When you’re ready to present your fee-for-service offering to partners, be transparent about your pricing. It’s okay – and even good – to explain the why behind your pricing structure. Ground these conversations in your mission and impact, because that’s what your earned revenue is driving.

More Earned Revenue Examples 

Tech Nonprofit Earned Revenue Model

SIRUM

SIRUM, which connects surplus medicine to people in need, processes and redistributes donated medications for as little as a few dollars per month per prescription.

SIRUM has two earned revenue models. On one side, the organizations that donate medicine can pay through a “no sort” option, which allows for a single-stream donation experience making it easier to donate and reducing their destruction costs. On the side, organizations or consumers pay to receive the medicine donations like at Good Pill, a pharmacy SIRUM helped launch which asks patients to pay a small fee ($2/month) per prescription. While the organization is not fully self-sustaining, some programs cover most of their operating costs via these earned revenue strategies.

CommonLit

CommonLit‘s nonprofit mission is to deliver a free online reading program. To sustain this work, the nonprofit offers a paid service called Formative Insights, which is a tool that helps school districts rollout CommonLit broadly across many schools.

CommonLit’s paid offerings also include: professional development for teachers (live and recorded), rostering support, and school and district-wide data reports and consultations.

Upsolve

Upsolve earns revenue by giving site visitors an option to receive a free evaluation from a vetted private attorney. Attorneys pay Upsolve to provide these free evaluations, which allow attorneys to reach more people who may need their services. The Upsolve team realized that some people coming to its site preferred attorneys, weren’t a good fit for its free app, or needed personalized legal advice that its app couldn’t provide.

And so, Upsolve Local was born: a service that allows bankruptcy attorneys to connect with people who want to learn more about bankruptcy by talking to an attorney one-on-one. This earned revenue helps Upsolve keep its web app free.

Read more about Upsolve’s earned revenue model here.

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