Cracking the Corporate Gifts Code: A Conversation with Former Director of Corporate Giving Joe Vella : Successful Nonprofits

Episode 127

Cracking the Corporate Gifts Code: A Conversation with Former Director of Corporate Giving Joe Vella

Listen on  iTunes    Android     Stitcher  Libsyn

Episode 127

Cracking the Corporate Gifts Code: A Conversation with Former Director of Corporate Giving Joe Vella

Listen on  iTunes    Android     Stitcher  Libsyn

by GoldenburgGroup

Make me an offer I can’t refuse; talk to me about an initiative that’s irresistible!

Dolph talks with Joe Vella, former Director of Corporate Giving at Macy’s, to learn how nonprofits can position themselves for corporate gifts in an era of more restricted giving.

*****Timestamped Highlights*****

(2:10) A happy accident: How Joe began community engagement
(4:50) Massaging the numbers fairly, judiciously, and strategically
(9:36) Securing funds from a corporation by showing tangible results
(11:48) Cause marketing vs corporate giving
(13:32) Doing your homework BEFORE you approach a corporation for funding
(17:26) Tips to increase your chances of receiving funding
(18:36) Trust me, a tour can show a LOT
(21:35) Appreciating every single dollar of a contribution
(22:46) The icing on the cake to your ask – proposing an offer they can’t resist

The secrets to
community engagement:
Plan early, develop that roadmap, get people energized, recruit the right people, set realistic goals

(25:44) Storytelling for the win!
(26:53) What to do if you when a corporate funder declines
(27:56) Postcards, postcards, and more postcards!


Joe’s LinkedIn:
Macy’s website:





Read the Transcript for Episode 127 Below or Click Here!

The smart nonprofit conveyed to me that they appreciated every dollar they got and that every dollar furthered their efforts.

Dolph Goldenburg: Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits™ Podcast. I’m your host Dolph Goldenburg. Today I welcome Joe Vella to the podcast. Joe has looked at life from both sides now. In the first part of his career, he worked in marketing and buying for major retail corporations. His work with a textile manufacturer took him to India four to five times a year during his early career, and he also had the opportunity to visit China, Indonesia, Thailand, Greece, the Philippines, and Africa when he was a buyer for Pure One. His travels are fascinating and listeners, you know that I love to travel and talk about travel, but that’s not why we’ve asked him to be on the podcast today. Joe’s other career has been in the corporate world in community affairs. Now, that’s another name for community giving or corporate gifts. It was there that Joe had the opportunity to meet with the executive directors and development directors of nonprofits that were supporting all types of missions and issues, so women’s issues, HIV, AIDS, education, arts, culture, and the environment.

And now listeners get this. Every year Joe was responsible for administering $15 million in grants. Now, wouldn’t you like to get a slice of some of that corporate giving for your nonprofit? Imagine what you could do with the grant for $25,000 – $100,000. And so today, Joe, who has also been a development director (I said he’s been on both sides of this) is going to help us understand how nonprofits can build relationships with corporations that result in real money. And he’s going to share a bit about how he transitioned from rug buying in India to community engagement with Macy’s. So, let’s get to it. Hey Joe, welcome to the podcast.

Joe Vella: Thank you, Dolph. I’m very, very happy to be here.

Dolph Goldenburg: So, you’ve got to share with our listeners. What prompted your move from working to bring money into the company to a position where your job is to give money away for the company?

Joe Vella: It happened quite by accident. In 1999 and 2000 I chaired the Macy’s Corporate United Way campaign, and they were very, very successful. I was a merchant at the time. I was in the home furnishings, and with those two very successful United Way campaigns, it took me and put me in the forefront and highly visibly who senior executives in the company. So when the vice president of community affairs announced her retirement in early 2002, senior management actually approached me about that position. That particular discussion on that day was one of the highlights of my professional career..

Dolph Goldenburg: That is awesome. Let’s take a minute though and talk about those United way campaigns that you’re running internally. Because you know, on the nonprofit side we often hear about corporate United way campaigns, but how’s the sausage made? What does that look like on the inside?

BEFORE you approach a potential corporate funder, do your homework!
Make sure the corporation supports your nonprofit’s focus
Know your competition and position your organization to stand out

Joe Vella: It is so much work. And for me, I was connected to United Way campaigns way back when I was just two years out of college. I was alone executives as a department manager at Macy’s. I was alone executive for United way campaign in 1981. And that was my humble beginnings with the contact with United Way. I have touched United Way campaigns for almost 20 years. And the secret ingredients is plan early and develop that roadmap to the nth degree. Be specific as you can possibly be, yet energized from the get go recruit happens that wants to be part of the Pam pain, not have to be part of the campaign. Set goals that are realistic. We would sit with senior management at Macy’s, and we will review the goals of the campaign every single year. And it took some go-around to massage those numbers to make sure we were being fair to the community, to United Way and to Macy’s.

Dolph Goldenburg: And so what did that process of massaging the numbers look like?

Joe Vella: Very, very detailed analysis back in 2009, Macy’s restructured, and we call it an implosion, if you will cause in by almost 20 something years with the corporation. At that time, I’d never seen a restructure so wide and so deep. And one of the biggest challenges was corporate contributions of United Way’. With a shrinking corporate contributions budget because of the recession, we had to look seriously at every single city where there was a corporate contribution to United way. We had to make some very serious decisions in terms of reduction of those contributions, and we began an analysis massaging those numbers, saying that, okay, if Memphis, Tennessee is doing 3% of the company’s business, then Memphis United way should be at 3% corporate contribution to the total budget. So it was a very laborious and in some cases, very painful process where we knew because these relationships were decades old and we knew we could not just take that axe and swing it. We had to be fair and judicious. So in many cities, we began to step down program. We met with them face to face. I would go, I sit and I explained the reasoning as to why they’re no longer getting $150,000 corporate contribution towards their campaign and why they would be getting ultimately the $25,000 contribution and how in a five-year period we would step them down. Very Fair, very judicious. I’m happy to tell you, we did not get one single pushback. They totally understood where our minds and hearts were.

Dolph Goldenburg: Talk to me about those nonprofits that successfully approached Macy’s during this restructuring process. So were the organizations that found successful ways to approach you and approach Macy’s in and get a gift at a time when Macy’s is saying, hey, let’s cut back on giving.

Joe Vella: Yeah, first and foremost, the amount of quantity of nonprofits (in 2010) as we came out of the restructure in 2009, the quantity of nonprofits because the budget was significantly reduced and we spent hours, hours, hours analyzing and looking at the partnerships, the relationships we had, we created spreadsheets. We look at how much we were giving every organization in every city. And uh, we would go ahead and have those three columns: Must Continue, should continue, do not continue. Once that exercise was done at all, you’d be surprised it was actually money left. There would actually some money left over.

Dolph Goldenburg: Those nonprofits that were on the must continue list, what did they do to make sure they were on the must continue list?

Joe Vella: They were incredible partners with me.

Dolph Goldenburg: What does that look like? Tell me what that looks like.

Joe Vella: It looks like from the, from right out of the gate that that partnership is a win, win, win. It’s a win for the nonprofit. It’s a win for the corporation. In this case it was Macy’s, and absolutely a win for the end recipient. It’s defined not necessarily saying, Oh wow, you know, corporations are supposed to give money to nonprofits, but that’s what you’re supposed to do. The win is defined more in terms of how Macy’s, corporate giving entity, is perceived for their generosity and how that amount of money, whatever it may have been, produced tangible, measurable results. So that also took a new mindset because the old school was “give the money out there because it’s the right thing to do.” And the new mindset post-recession is you that have to be fiscally responsible agents of shareholder money.

Dolph Goldenburg: So for those folks that were on the must continue to give list, what specifically did they do that enabled Macy’s to say, we got value for what we gave?

Joe Vella: They were able to give us those tangible, measurable results in terms of how Macy’s through our contributions moving needle. The needle may have been in education program at Berkeley up students that were graduating, staying in school, improving their grades. It may have been for arts and culture. The amount of exposures from a marketing perspective may future seeds into the eyes of the [patch on] attending those events and activities. Uh, if it was an aids and HIV initiative, the number of reduction of infections because of Macy support to prevention programs and education programs. Right after we would look at who is going to get more money, who is going to get less money and who was going to go away, immediately behind that we began to assemble matrices based on the areas of community focus. There were five, six questions for each matrix. But each of those questions had a tangible, measurable results attached to it so that we could be given at that point to be totally responsible.

Dolph Goldenburg: So when I think I hear you saying is that through is not necessarily a one-size-fits all approach for who was on the must list. But for the most part, they were organizations that can show what their outcomes were and could give some level of and documents some level of marketing benefit. So you know, so not just what we put you on our website, but you know x number of patrons saw you because they came to the theater that night.

Joe Vella: And once I, once I absolutely did not. And what we were doing at that time was creating a corporate giving program that was regional and local. So there were actually two buckets of money that were created with what was left of the budget. Then we did the national initiatives were handled then by the Macy’s cause marketing propose because I engage with the customer. So we drew a clear cut dichotomy between what is cause marketing and what is corporate giving. And it works really, really well because that way there were no in truck company squabbles in terms of who had territorial rights.  Everybody understood the role and scope of their job, and it moved beautifully in a really positive direction.

Dolph Goldenburg: Would event sponsorship fall under your um, cause marketing?

Joe Vella: That would fall under a corporate giving. The initiatives that fell under cause marketing were initiatives that engage the customer, and that was like the go red for women campaign for American Heart Association. If the customer was asked to participate in a initiative that Macy’s was going to be the conduit to get the money to those nonprofits, that was caused marketing, not corporate giving. It was just very easy just to make it all work in our, in our credit.

Dolph Goldenburg: So Macy’s has a shrinking pile of dollars that it’s giving away. You started to decide who’s in the, the Musky blissed, who’s in the maybe keep, and then you know, who’s in the list of organizations. We’re not gonna support it anymore. And you mentioned that at the end of the day you have some money leftover and you were able to help him, some new organizations. In what ways could organizations approach you effectively who had never been funded before to try to get money in? What was the best way to, to approach you?

Joe Vella: First and foremost, the nonprofit media to do their homework, look and make certain that Macy’s was supporting the community focus within their nonprofits. So that if it was you main society for Captain Dog, that was not a community focus for us, so therefore wouldn’t be considered at one level with one with one budget of money. Uh, if they approached us and they didn’t fit into that community focus area, the other challenge would be for them to try to figure out what the competition was light from other nonprofits within that community focus so that if there was a niche that they offered and that Macy’s had a void for in their community support, it would make it a little bit easier for that nonprofit to come to Macy’s and say, “Wow, I see you are supporting domestic violence initiatives in the communities where you have yours and you’re doing business. We’ve got this incredible initiative happening on college campuses in regards to sexual assault. And it doesn’t look like Macy’s is back.”

So immediately, um, my light bulb to turn on, I would be like, whoa. Oh Wow. Let’s, let’s talk. Let’s talk. I  prided myself though in responding to every inquiry, whether it was a letter, whether it was a phone call, even if an email. Uh, I would spend a significant amount of time saying no, and we called it a night, no, because we did it very diplomatically. I was tremendously well respected for the fact that I didn’t think more anymore. So if someone approached me and they had an opportunity out there that piqued my interest, I would engage in conversation. In most cases because my territory was so large they weren’t local. If there was a sense of urgency, I we would have a face, we would have a phone call or a meeting if you can wait. And if it was in a opportunity of in Boston and I was going to be in Boston in two months, I would try to schedule a face to face. So I definitely was there when it came to opportunities out there that would be that win-win-win situation. And if I didn’t have money, I would try to find it.

Dolph Goldenburg: Those nonprofits that successfully gotten money from Macy’s who’ve not been funded before, what did they do to prep for that phone call? Or what do they do to prep for that face to face meeting?

Joe Vella: They did a lot of homework. They absolutely knew what we were doing in their community with which organizations, and they would set an agenda for the meeting. Before any meeting with a nonprofit, I would kind of do a very loose agenda saying, “I’m coming up often, here’s the nonprofits on visiting, here’s, we’ll want to cover during that one hour meeting.” A very smart nonprofit would look at that agenda and inject more specifics into that agenda that I would always agree with because I think that, you know, you know, the cart wagging the horse, the horse wagon and cart, I think it’s a quid pro quo situation when you’re dealing with a funder and a nonprofit. So I was always very open minded as long as I knew it wasn’t going to take three hours because I didn’t have credit hours.

Dolph Goldenburg: So what types of things would they add to the agenda that would enhance the possibility of them getting funding?

Joe Vella: Well, one of them might be a site visit. You can meet in an office building somewhere and it doesn’t make any sense. 99% of the time if I was visiting a nonprofit on their territory. But if they had, uh, an office somewhere and they were out in the field doing the work they do, I would much insist on meeting out in the field, and then I’d let them take charge from that point. In terms of a tour, I would call it a walk and talk tour because the bulk of it was not sitting in an office just talking face to face. Small part of it was, but the most important part was them really giving me a detailed show of what their organization was all about and where Macy’s money would be applied and how far it could go to make a big difference in the head. That was one of the main things that the whole, I will call her for a walk and talk.

Dolph Goldenburg: So in that walk and talk to her, what were some of the biggest mistakes that organizations made that maybe they should not have made?

Joe Vella: Well. Um, in some cases the organization was not really prepared for company. If the office is a mess, if the classroom, the labs, the waiting rooms are just not up to standard, there’s a lot to be said about how they view their clients. I would see what the restrooms look like. I’m not being ridiculous. It’s just the fact that, you know, Macy’s money was again trying to be as fair and judicious with that money, and we wanted to make sure we’ve got to be an investment in the right way. If you walk in, and you’re doing your walk and talk tour and somebody in the organization is in a panic mode because there’s a fire that they have to put out fires Europe all the time, I understand that. But there is a certain amount of prevention that can be done up front to make sure and let them deal with it. Because you’ve got to take, ultimately it’s all about the client ultimately. So if they were totally prepared for that visit, they would really have an agenda set. They would have their house in order. They would be ready in case there was a little problem, a one off. Then if somebody had to get pulled from the site. It’s all about preparedness.

Dolph Goldenburg: So it sounds like the, some of the biggest mistakes is the organization would not supersize the agenda. The organization did not make sure that their facility was clean before you walked in the door. And was my mom always used to say cleaning is free, cleaning is free. Then some people maybe we’re running around like chickens with their heads cut off  and just represented poorly for the organization.

Increase your chances of receiving corporate funding by showing the funder that their gift helps you move the needle on your initiatives.
Show them the tangible results!

Joe Vella: One other comment on behalf of the nonprofit was to grow out because you know, you want, you want to have your bragging rights, and you want to talk about other support you’re getting in the community, which is great. Totally respect that. They would need to make certain that they’re not relaying to me the fact that they’re getting so much money from other corporations, that they really, that, that, you know, unless it’s $100,000 coming from Macy’s, they really don’t need a $20,000 grant. They don’t say that, but it’s sometimes it’s some fly by them talking about the fortune 500 or the fortune 1000 and the amount of money that they’re contributing. And that would have me going, “Well, maybe, maybe they don’t need our five or 10,000,” you know. The smart nonprofits would relay to me the fact that every single dollar they got was appreciated and was applied to an end result that was really something to be very proud of.

Dolph Goldenburg: Nice. Nice. So then now let’s jump to the end of that meeting. So it’s the end of the meeting. Do most organizations have a real sense of whether or not they’re going to get funded by the end of that meeting or what does that look like?

Joe Vella: If you do, you don’t leave with a happy face. Like, you know, try to lead them all at the end of the meeting would conclude with me saying, wow, what a great visit. Thank you so much. I’m very impressed. I appreciate your preparedness for this. Looks like you all are doing a phenomenal job in reaching the end client. The end results. I still have to go back to my office, do my homework, sharpen my pencil, do the arithmetic and see what I can do for you. But the other caveat to that would be, I would challenge the nonprofits to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Dolph Goldenburg: What does it offer you can’t refuse to look like?

Joe Vella: Talk to me about an initiative that is so irresistible that we can’t turn your head away. You got to jump in on it and fund it because you know it’s going to be incredibly successful. And the nonprofit, if they were smart, would build into that offer all of the elements that made total sense, all of them so that they were doing the work and all I had to do was say, “Oh absolutely.” Or if it was something like they were asking you for $100,000 and all I had was $20,000, we talk about it and we still reach a compromise, but they get money.

Dolph Goldenburg: So, the meeting has ended and you go back to your office, you sharpen your pencil. What type of follow up did the most successful organizations do with you before you made your final decision?

Joe Vella: Well first I would send them within a few days, maybe within three or four working days. I would send them a recap of the meeting. I would take copious notes during the meeting. And I cannot tell you how much nonprofits appreciated the fact that a corporate funder, especially someone from out of town, was willing to make the trip to their town and make the time during that trip to spend with them. But I would be taking outrageously copious notes. And when I get back to my office, I would collect those, and I would send a recap of the meeting, and then I would send it to all the individuals who were at that meeting. If there was one person, if there were 10 people, I would do a business card swap. I would ask each of them for their business card, so I had their email addresses. They all got a copy of the meeting notes. And from there, we continue the dialogue. So that was the first step in the process – me being more productive on my end versus me saying within those meeting notes, we would talk money. We would talk ranges somewhere between this number and to determined based on our negotiations. As a sidebar, almost all of the brands that Macy’s gives are restricted.

Maybe a half a percent of the grants are unrestricted, but 99.5% of those grants are restricted to specific initiatives.

Dolph Goldenburg: You send that meeting summary to the folks that participated in the meeting, what can they do in terms of follow up to inch a little bit closer to either getting funded or getting funded for a little bit more?

Joe Vella: They, if they were really smart, they would send me a story, a backup to the meeting that would pull on my heart and really given a great example of where money goes and for me to say, “Wow, this is how effective they are. If this is how well perceived they are in this community, is Macy’s total advantage to be connected with.”

Dolph Goldenburg: Got It, got it. And so one final question. You sharpen your pencil, turns out the tip of the pencil breaks and you’ve got to go back and say to the organization, hey sorry, we just, we don’t have, we can’t fund you. What can that organization do in terms of follow up so that may be Macy’s or you would fund them in a year or two years or three years?

Joe Vella: I would always encourage them to stay in contact. I cannot find you right now, then I would encourage them to circle back to me in December. The Macy’s fiscal year ends January 31, and I would venture to say that any corporate entity out there, any family foundation, individual foundation they have. So, a smart nonprofit will make note of that circle back in late November and say, “Hey Joe, remember us? Remember we had that great meeting? Great discussion. So, what’s up with your end of the year?” And I think you’d be surprised how many folks got a couple thousand dollars.

Dolph Goldenburg: So it sounds like maybe one of the things for a smart nonprofit to say is “Hey, can we follow up with you toward the end of your fiscal year?”

Joe Vella: I would say absolutely

Dolph Goldenburg: Joe, I am so thrilled that you’re on the podcast. You and I’ve got probably known each other for a decade or longer. And in every episode, I like to ask my guests and Off-the-Map question and it’s something that listeners would not know about you just with a Google search. So when reading your bio, I noted that you like to collect postcards, and we aren’t just talking like one from every state and you got 50 postcards. You are a pro at postcard collecting. So how many have you got, and what got you started on this hobby?

Joe Vella: I grew up in New Jersey, and we’d go to Florida in the family for vacation every year and drive down. My dad didn’t like to spend long days on the road. He like doing like a three-day trip and we would stay in a motel somewhere along the way. I would go into there (a child somewhere between five and 10 years old) to the desk at the motel and would pull out the drawer for stationary. There would be writing paper and there would be a postcard of the motel. And I would say to my folks, can I keep this? And they say, “Sure, sure.” Well, from those humble beginning, uh, I always had an infatuation infatuation with travel.

So, uh, I would start as we, as I was getting older and had a little bit of money out there to play with buying clothes. In those days, post card for five and 10 cents. I would start purchasing some postcards that interesting places where we go. Okay, fast forward 50 years later. I have about 15,700 postcards. They are filed in photo boxes. Tey’re decorative photo boxes in one of the extra bedrooms. It’s Kinda cool cause people are like, “What are in those boxes?” I’m like, “Those are the post cards.” And they’re like, “Well can we look?” I’m like, “You’re going to need a lot of time.”

Yesterday, I was with my dad at the National Infantry Museum down in Fort Benning, Georgia for the 75th anniversary commemoration of D Day, I went into their gift shop. Now before I went, I did check with postcards I had on file and I went into the gift shop. And Lo and behold, they had two new postcards for me. There are worse things I could do in my free time, but these postcards are all categorized alphabetically by country, by state, by city, and they are all in an individual sleeve to protect them. So cool. Kind of scary, Huh?

Dolph Goldenburg: So, so not scary at all. I love that. And I have to share with you my own postcards story. And I do not have about 15,700 postcards, but every year I put together a scrapbook of Frank and I’s life together. So, you know, so like all year long, you know, you collect these things playbills postcards, photos, ticket stubs, whatever. And then at the end of the year, I’ve put together this scrapbook and anything that does not make it into the scrapbook that does not rise to the level that yeah, I want to remember that for the rest of my life I throw out. So then I don’t end up with all this junk from year to year to year. But at first I primarily took photos of places we went and put them in the scrapbook. And then I realized that none of my photos were ever as good as postcards. If there’s a really beautiful lake or mountain view or whatever, you know, and, and I want, and I think I wanted them to the scrapbook, I go and I find the postcard because I know that whoever took that photo is that is a 20 time better photographer than myself.

Joe Vella: Hey, it’s harmless. So it’s all good. It’s all good.

Dolph Goldenburg: Joe, I am so grateful that you joined us today. Thank you so much and thank you for sharing your experience with our listeners and helping them understand some of the most effective ways that they can approach the corporate giving officers in in their area. So thank you.

Joe Vella: You’re very welcome. It’s my pleasure, and I sincerely hope that your listeners truly benefited from our dialogue.

Dolph Goldenburg: I know that they will. I also just want to make sure that if listeners want to know more about you or want to connect with you, they can find you on LinkedIn, and we’ll post your LinkedIn profile to in the show notes. And if folks want to see what Joe did when he was at Macy’s, we will also link to Macy’s website. That kind of shows how Joe’s 15 years as being the director of corporate giving there has really paved the path for the organizations that Macy’s still supports today. And let me tell you, when you go to that website, it will restore your faith and retail corporate giving.

Joe Vella: Thank you. Thank you so much. I certainly appreciate that.

Dolph Goldenburg: Hey Joe, thank you. I

If you’ve been busy making a spreadsheet of the myriad ways, you’re going to put your $100,000 brand new corporate gift to use. Please keep at it. All of today’s information can be found on our website. It’s Now, Joe’s tales of corporate giving have me thinking about other big money donors like family foundations. So, check out our podcast on the family foundation office with Randy Tilley Hill. If you’ll recall, Ranlyn explains what a family office is, what it does, and shares the best practices for engaging with family offices to bring big bucks into your nonprofit. Now, if you enjoyed today’s show, please do me a favor and hit the subscribe button on whatever podcast platform you’re using. And if you’re feeling super generous, give us a rating while you’re at it. That is our show for this week. I hope you have gained some insight to help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment.


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