Get to Know Your New Corporate Partner: 18 Questions to Ask


So you’re a nonprofit that’s landed the first meeting with a corporate partner – now what?

In our experience in partnering with companies for global development at Heifer International, we’ve found you need to ask the right questions to prepare for and drive a meaningful conversation. Actively listening and accurately interpreting the answers is essential for assessing the viability of any cross-sector partnership. But crafting a strong question set for the initial meeting isn’t as easy as it looks, especially when international NGOs (INGOs) and corporations speak different languages; meeting time is limited; and participants bring diverse mindsets, interests and positions.

One reason Heifer belongs to the Shared Value Initiative’s INGO Working Group is the opportunity to bring a team of colleagues from our headquarters and the field together on nuanced issues like this one. Last month the working group convened in Rome for the annual Shared Value Practitioner’s Forum, an intensive three-day workshop on building effective, high impact partnerships with corporations. For Team Heifer, an important takeaway from the 2016 Forum was co-creating a thoughtful, targeted set of questions to guide the first meeting between Heifer and a prospective corporate partner.

Over the past three years, Heifer’s Global Partnerships & Alliances team has developed and delivered a corporate partnership training workshop for country office staff members who work on private-sector engagement and cross-sector partnerships. One component of this workshop is a session on how to prepare for the first meeting with a potential corporate partner.

Heifer’s corporate partnership training emphasizes the importance of preparation and homework, and our list of research questions is fairly standard. We emphasize the importance of gathering intel on these topics before an initial meeting with a potential corporate partner so that INGO representatives are informed and the discussion is productive and engaging.

Questions to explore before that initial meeting:

  1. Does the INGO have any history or previous engagement with the company?
  2. How did this meeting come about? What information is important to know about the meeting set-up?
  3. What does the company do? What products does the company sell? Where does the company operate?
  4. How big is the company? Is it growing or struggling? Who are its key competitors?
  5. Who are the company’s leaders? Board members?
  6. What are the industry trends in the company’s sector?
  7. What is the company’s business strategy? What issues and priorities are highlighted in the company’s most recent annual report?
  8. What is the company’s philanthropic/CSR/sustainability focus? Is there a corporate foundation?
  9. Which NGOs partner with the company—nationally, regionally, globally?
  10. How is the company structured? Do you have an organizational chart? Are decisions about NGO partnerships made at headquarters or at the business unit?
  11. Are the company’s advertising and marketing campaigns relevant to the INGO’s work?
  12. Who are you meeting? What are his/her interests and priorities? Do you or Heifer colleagues have connections with them?

During the Rome Forum, presentations by and conversations with corporate executives like Matt Lonner at Chevron, Marian Curry at Ericsson, Susan Payne at Barclays, Maria Cristina Papetti at Enel, Brian Griffith at Griffith Foods, and Sarah Schaefer at Mars affirmed the importance of thorough research and preparation in advance of an initial meeting with a potential corporate partner. What was new and different in Rome was hearing what corporate executives would like us to ask in an initial meeting.

Questions to ask during the initial meeting:

  1. What do you think of INGOs?
  2. How does your company think about social vs. business issues?
  3. What does a partnership timeframe look like at your company?
  4. Who is on your team? Which individuals will we be working with on a partnership? Who are the real decision-makers?
  5. How does your company measure impact and shared value?
  6. How do your company’s investments in solving social and environmental issues fit into systems change?

The Rome Forum delivered something that is smart and sensible, but is actually quite rare: a small group setting where INGO professionals who work on corporate partnerships could listen, talk, debate and collaborate with corporate executives and other INGO representatives about the challenges and opportunities of cross-sector and shared value partnerships.

Securing the first meeting with a potential corporate partner is a big deal for those of us in the INGO sector. As with any potentially long-term partnership, we want and need to make the most of that initial interaction. At Heifer, this means doing your homework: We subscribe to the Roman philosopher Seneca, who said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”