Charitable giving has long been a best practice of companies looking to humanize their brand, build positive change in the world, and cultivate goodwill with customers and the public. A large number of businesses are now taking it one step further and embracing important causes by forging charitable partnerships.

Take Morgan Stanley, for example. The giant financial services firm regards its employees' expertise as an advantage it can apply to social issues -- specifically, fighting hunger in the United States. Not only does the company donate around $2 million every year to the nonprofit Feeding America, but about 6,000 of its employees also volunteer within Feeding America's network of food banks. Some employees even use their financial skills to help the nonprofit identify ways to cut costs and create efficiencies. By engaging in a more holistic relationship like this, Morgan Stanley is doingmuch more than just donating money.

Be careful, though: Simply joining forces with the first nonprofit you find may not do you much good. Consumers (especially the millennial ones I talk to regularly) aren't as impressed by surface-level philanthropy -- and they'll sniff out a shallow partnership relatively easily. That said, a charitable partnership that's aligned with your company's values has the power to strengthen your mission, foster a philanthropic spirit among staff, and may even turn your once-in-a-while customers into longer-term loyalists.

Fostering a Caring Environment

It's well established that employees want to work for companies that care. Last year's Cone Communications Employee Engagement Study found that more than half of employees say they don't want to work for organizations that don't have a "strong social and environmental commitment," and almost three-quarters of respondents said their jobs were more fulfilling when they were given opportunities to enact positive change. What's more, according to Project ROI,corporate responsibility reduces turnover by half and leads to about 20 percent growth in revenue.

Nonprofits, for their part, can also capitalize on the benefits of a partnership. About half see giving in the workplace as a strategy for growth, according to the Snapshot 2014 report. Giving initiatives and employee engagement allow nonprofits to promote their missions, programs, and services. Plus, these factors help with volunteer recruitment.

If you're interested in forging a philanthropic partnership, look to these four strategies to get started and ensure a mutually beneficial relationship.

1. Make sure the partnership is genuine.

When considering a partnership, ask yourself whether your company's vision, mission, and goals align with those of the charitable organization.

Marketing agency Inspira, for example, has a partnership with Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, an organization dedicated to fighting childhood cancer. Inspira not only works with the organization on many of its flagship fundraising events, but it also donates a portion of its profits to the nonprofit to aid in the fight against pediatric cancer.

The company chose that charity because it's a cause that hits close to home for founder Jeff Snyder. His daughter, Kennedy, was diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer when she was just 2 years old and has been battling the disease ever since. Inspira's charitable partnership drives its purpose, the employees it chooses to hire, and the campaigns it develops.

2. Align your partnership plan with your business strategy.

Successful partnerships combine business and philanthropic goals. Companies should support and encourage traditional fundraising among staff, but they shouldn't forget to set and manage cause-marketing objectives as well. Always tie your efforts back to your objectives.

For instance, Citigroup folds its philanthropy efforts into its broader corporate citizenship strategy. In 2014, the Citi Foundation pledged to invest $50 million in cash and support to help young people find more career opportunities. In addition, Citigroup helps young people in service by funding AmeriCorps members in 10 cities. Also, its staff members provide mentorship through groups like Management Leadership for Tomorrow. The company says its efforts have strengthened teamwork and lifted employee morale.

3. Find a purposeful impact beyond fundraising.

Charitable partnerships are about so much more than just a cash drive. Companies should consider offering different levels of support so they can have the biggest impact and truly make a difference.

Microsoft is one of the best-known examples of this. It takes advantage of its employees' tech skills in developing relationships with nonprofits. The company has not only invited nonprofit leaders to pitch ideas about their tech and data problems, but it has also pledged to help fix them. The company also encourages its engineers to teach high school computer science classes, and it matches employee volunteer hours with cash.

4. Find room in the profit margins.

BoxLunch belongs to a crowded market of novelty retailers, but its civic-minded business model sets it apart from many competitors. Through its partnership with Feeding America, the company is working to chip away at the hunger crisis in the U.S. For every $10 customers spend on its merchandise, BoxLunch provides a meal to someone in need. To date, it has supplied more than 7 million meals through Feeding America's food banks.

If you're looking for an impactful way to make a difference in the world, consider building charitable contributions into the very fabric of your business model. Adjust the frequency of these contributions as it fits your financial capacity, and make sure to stick to your word: If you promise to donate a meal for every $10 spent, as BoxLunch does, make sure you can commit to it.

Creating charitable partnerships is good for business and allows nonprofits to capitalize on the fundraising and volunteer efforts of employees. Really, it's a win-win.

Published on: Aug 18, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.