By Lucy Siegel | October 25, 2019

Governmental and non-profit organizations team up to form strategic partnerships for a multitude of reasons. Often called “public-private partnerships,” these relationships can and should be win-win propositions for each organization involved. These partnerships are business relationships; to be effective, each partner must receive benefits from the relationship. But how do we go about building community partnerships?

Non-profits and governmental organizations frequently benefit from the additional financial resources that corporations can bring to the table. Non-profits can gain knowledgeable corporate volunteers and pro bono services, as well as helpful and well-connected new board members from such partnerships. They can also build higher visibility and expand their donor bases.

By building community partnerships with non-profit and government organizations, a corporation can increase its visibility in a very positive way. The company can also expand its customer base through exposure to partners’ supporters, leading to increased profitability. Partnerships with non-profits are good for corporate employees’ morale and engagement, give employees a chance to learn new skills, help with employee retention and support a company’s CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives. In addition, corporations can receive tax benefits from funding non-profit activities. All members of a community partnership can benefit from increased media coverage.

Public relations agencies frequently build and manage community partnerships to serve their clients’ needs. The agency’s role may begin in the planning stages, with the agency developing the strategy, identifying potential partners with common goals, and proposing the appropriate partnership to a client. The agency often approaches potential partners on behalf of a client, makes introductions of the partners to each other, develops and implements partnership programs and generates media coverage about them. PR agencies are often able to leverage their own networks and relationships in approaching potential partners and working closely with them to achieve results.

The best way to explain how these partnerships work is by providing some case studies.

Case study: partnership between a restaurant chain and MADD

Durée & Company, a public relations agency based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, made an introduction between a national restaurant client’s general manager and the local chapter of MADD – a multinational nonprofit that works to end drunk driving. Explains Durée Ross, president, “What started as a kick-off event for the Walk Like MADD & MADD Dash Fort Lauderdale 5K, with cardboard boxes of pizza, evolved into an elegant affair. The restaurant’s GM raised the bar by donating catered food and rentals from her restaurant. Today the restaurant GM is the co-chair of this local chapter’s 5K event and has raised tens of thousands of dollars through her own efforts and dedication to this worthy cause.”

Ross notes that by donating time to the non-profit organization, the restaurant general manager increased her restaurant’s community affairs outreach and its profile within the community while exposing the restaurant brand to many new guests.

Case study: City of Aspen’s community outreach SHIFT initiative to decrease traffic

In 2018, the City of Aspen Colorado needed to solidify support for a radical plan to address traffic congestion. Darnauer Group Communications, a PR agency and its partner, Manifest Communication, in Aspen, were asked for help. The PR firms’ task was to develop a community outreach program, building community partnerships among the city’s businesses, civic groups and non-profit organizations, facilitating group sessions and engaging individuals. The purpose was to listen, inform and solicit feedback to understand the public sentiment toward this initiative.

Jeanette Darnauer, founder and principal of Darnauer Group Communications, says the program offered incentives for people in various user groups to change their personal behavior. “We solicited potential partners as a means of creating awareness within their networks,” she explains. “We identified key influencers and stakeholders within these user groups to support our campaign and we targeted visitors and local residents to drive less by using proposed new modes of transit. A guerilla marketing campaign utilizing pop-ups (with a branded ice cream trike) became one of our most successful engagement tools.”

Darnauer notes the biggest hurdle was the amount of time it took to work with partners to understand their concerns and needs, and to learn how the proposed transit options were aligned with their goals and interests.  “However, the work involved was well worth it for the City of Aspen,” she says. “Using the community partnerships, we could leverage the organizations’ networks and databases. That allowed us to reach a large number of people in a short time, which influenced the City’s political decisions. They ended up scrapping the initiative because of the pushback on cost and need.”

Case Study:  PR Team Unites Multiple Columbia River Gorge Tourism Stakeholders 

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area in Oregon and Washington is home to the Pacific Crest Trail, the National Historic Lewis and Clark Trail, the Historic Columbia River Highway, numerous hospitable small towns, the nation’s largest concentration of waterfalls, and dozens of wineries, orchards and farms. Stretching more than 80 miles east-to-west and providing access to trails on Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams, the Gorge is a mecca for outdoor recreationalists.

About three years ago, Weinstein PR was given the task of working with a number of the area’s key stakeholders, including Oregon Regional Solutions, the Oregon Department of Transportation, the U.S. Forest Service and Friends of the Columbia Gorge, to develop a tourism communications program. Dubbed “Ready, Set, GOrge!,” its purpose is to help visitors:

  1. Avoid crowds by encouraging them to travel in directions and at times that will prevent congestion.
  2. Plan ahead to have a safe and fun experience.
  3. Take steps to help protect the Gorge so future visitors can enjoy it, too.

“As part of the plan development, we held listening sessions with diverse audiences to learn more about their needs in preparing for active adventures,” explains Lee Weinstein, president of Weinstein PR in Portland, Oregon. “In 2019 the program’s stakeholders have increased to include more transportation partners. We’re creating two 60-second videos to reach a wider, younger audience. The aim is to raise awareness about as a resource and highlight public transportation alternatives.”

Weinstein adds that the result of the program is improved safety in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Congestion is also being addressed through non-auto transport options.

While each of these case studies deals with very different assignments, all three PR agency owners responsible for the work commented on potential relationship challenges inherent in building community partnerships.

Ross notes, for example, “One thing for a PR agency to look out for is that something could go wrong when introducing two clients to each other as potential partners. If that happens, the PR firm could be stuck in the middle and forced to take sides.”

Darnauer warns that it takes time (and therefore budget) to develop a community relations program. “The best way to build strong partnerships is through immersion in the fabric of the community,” she says.  “PR agency employees must find ways to build personal connections that lead to trust, and which ultimately benefits business for the long-term.”

Weinstein says it wasn’t easy getting all the different partners on the same page, agreeing on the goals, and working together. “It took time at the outset, but after three years of this continuing project, communication and trust has been built and the Ready, Set, GOrge! messages are really resonating,” he notes. “We now have a solid working group of stakeholders cooperating together.”

In such a program involving multiple partners, Weinstein feels that a PR firm brings a lot of value as a neutral third party, without an agenda of its own, to facilitate, listen, reflect, suggest and direct. “Often, various parties have their own agendas and there may be issues of trust. An agency can see what needs to get done, facilitate in a neutral fashion and keep everyone on course to the desired finish line,” he remarks.