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Is Cause Marketing Right for Your Nonprofit?

You know that cause marketing is a partnership between a for-profit and a nonprofit. Each partner has something to offer the other.

Cause marketing is certainly a potentially significant strategy in your overall nonprofit marketing plan. And some of you have a cause marketing program in place already. But for those of you who don’t (and that’s most nonprofits), how do you know when cause marketing is right for your nonprofit? And if it is, how do you bring the program to life?

These questions are more weighty than ever in light of the controversies surrounding the Komen-KFC deal (guidelines for productive partnerships here) and the more recent Nature Conservancy (and other major environmental organizations)-BP deal.

I interviewed expert cause marketer Joe Waters, Director, Cause & Event Marketing at Boston Medical Center, to answer these questions and more. There’s no better resource on cause marketing than Joe’s blog, Selfish Giving. Joe features case studies (with specifics), trends and news from the field – it’s a must read for all cause marketers, and those still considering jumping in.

Nancy: How do you define cause marketing? There are so many definitions out there. Many nonprofit marketers are confused.

Cause marketing is a win-win partnership between a nonprofit and a for-profit for mutual profit, usually involving point-of-sale and/or percentage-of-sale programs. The “profit” for the nonprofit is visibility and/or money. For the for-profit, it’s an enhanced image and sales.

Nancy: How did cause marketing evolve as a major strategy for corporate support of nonprofit issues and causes?

Joe: American Express’ campaign for the Statue of Liberty in the early 80’s was the first major cause marketing effort. Since then, companies have slowly caught on to the value of moving beyond straight philanthropy. Frankly, many have had no choice because of the disappearing bottom-line that once made “charity” possible. Cause marketing allows companies to serve two masters: Consumers that expect them to give back, and investors who demand growth. It’s called cause marketing, but a more accurate name is “Cause Sales”.

Nancy: What kinds of nonprofits are likely to benefit from cause marketing, and to solicit interest of corporate sponsors?

Joe: A company will sometimes partner with a small, unknown charity simply because it’s a worthy cause, but most look for charities that are well-known and respected by consumers. There’s a double benefit here because they’re supporting a worthy cause AND a reputable organization. Companies also favor charities with a large supporter base and, increasingly, marketing know-how.

For instance, the studio that released Charlotte’s Web partnered with Heifer International, an Arkansas-based nonprofit that provides livestock to poor farmers, because of a natural farm animal connection. What sealed the partnership was Heifer’s 160,000 person mailing list and ability to conduct grassroots marketing from a nationwide network of offices. The studio could have partnered with any organization that worked with livestock, but Heifer delivered advantages they could take to the bank.

Nancy: Who usually benefits most, the charity or the corporation?

Joe: People always seem to think it’s the company, but I disagree. For most companies, cause marketing is just one of the ways they’re building reputation and driving sales.

Their marketing mix is like a dish with 100 ingredients: If you leave one out, no one will miss it. But with fewer ways and dollars to promote themselves, nonprofits stand to gain a lot from cause marketing, especially if they land the right partner.

Take the partnership between Starbucks and Boston-based Jumpstart, focused on early literacy skills. Since 2006, Starbucks has raised money and given Jumpstart great visibility via its website and stores, especially in the northeast. Thanks to Starbucks, Jumpstart now enjoys national awareness. But what has Starbucks gained from this one partnership? Can we really say that Starbucks would be any less successful if they hadn’t partnered with Jumpstart? Nope.

Nancy: What are a few “best practices” case studies?

Joe: Well, I think the Starbucks/Jumpstart partnership is a very strong one. It demonstrates just how much one company can impact a nonprofit. And Starbucks has benefited over time from its cause marketing partnerships with Jumpstart and others to forge a credible brand that has probably helped its business.

I also really like the point-of-sale cause marketing program A. C. Moore and Easter Seals recently completed. Even though it was a national program, it has some good lessons for local cause marketers like me (and probably most Getting Attention readers).

The breakdown of the program was simple. At A. C. Moore’s 136 stores cashiers asked customers to donate a dollar to Easter Seal’s Act for Autism campaign and together they raised over $141,000.

Great results, but here’s what makes this cause marketing effort noteworthy…A special in-store event. During the point-of-sale campaign, A. C. Moore invited customers to a Make & Take crafting event in stores that involved a jigsaw puzzle (for autism awareness). What a great combination of crafting and cause! I was thinking how great it would be if we did an in-store pumpkin decorating event at iParty stores during their October point-of-sale program for us.

: How should a nonprofit dive into cause marketing for the first time?

Joe: There are many steps, but the first is to honestly assess what you have to offer a corporate partner. Does your organization’s mission resonate with a company’s customers? Do you have an event that will provide great visibility for your partner? Do you have a relationship with a sports star or celebrity to feature in a joint advertising campaign? Do you have an extensive network of volunteers or local offices to help market a company’s products or services?

With my organization, Boston Medical Center, we started with strong relationships with just two Massachusetts-based companies, iParty and Ocean State Job Lots, which had been consistent supporters of the organization for many years. Since then we’ve inked over 50 cause partnerships with Mass-based companies.

Nancy: Whom on the nonprofit staff should be involved? Is this a marketing or development responsibility?

It’s both. But what’s more important is that everyone understands the value of cause marketing to the organization. If leadership and staff members aren’t committed, it really doesn’t matter what department you work for or how talented you are. It won’t work.

: OK, let’s assume that there’s a nonprofit that doesn’t fit your criteria for cause marketing success? What other kinds of corporate support are available?

I would tell them to stop worrying about cause marketing and just focus on opportunity. If you have something of value that you think companies will want, you don’t have to stay between the lines of cause marketing.

A friend of mine works for a Boston organization with lots of foot traffic. She does traditional cause marketing, but she closed her best deal when she convinced a company to sell their products in her main entrance area. That one deal raises her organization several hundred thousand dollars annually. Is it cause marketing? No. Is their money green? You bet it is.

Readers, I’d appreciate hearing your experiences with cause marketing so we can share them with the Getting Attention community.

  • For those of you still on the fence, what are the barriers keeping your organization out of cause marketing partnerships?
  • For those of you whose organizations are recent entrants, what motivated the decision to develop such partnerships and how are they going?
  • And for those of you who are long-time cause marketers, what is different (and more challenging) in today’s cause marketing arena?

Nancy Schwartz in Cause Marketing, Strategies and Campaigns | 10 comments

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  • Great article – thanks, Nancy and Joe! I am the Marketing Coordinator for a small organization that is a local chapter of a national organization, so we have the advantages of local recognition and community support, while also being able to participate in national opportunities including cause marketing. I loved the example of AC Moore and Easter Seals and could see something like that working for us on a local level, where customers could create something for our nonprofit participants in addition to making a donation. There are many small businesses in town that have lent their support through in-kind and other donations, but I hadn’t considered cause marketing on a smaller scale until I read this article.

  • I always enjoy your articles and find them very informative and relevant. As one of the admins for the AFP Suncoast Facebook page, I post articles each week and you’re frequently included. I thought the following comments might interest you, although keeping the company name confidential would be appreciated.

    In my role as Director of Community Relations for the Foundation , I’ve worked on creating and trying to “sell” to the company the many benefits of marketing partnerships with corporations. Fortunately, my boss “gets it” but it has been an uphill battle for her to convince members of senior management that it makes such perfect sense for us financially. We have a very large footprint and significant monthly electronic outreach and this great exposure is our main benefit to marketing partners. There is a huge intangible asset for companies in affiliating with an organization like ours. We’ve had some success in getting past concerns, but non-profit technical people are unjustifiably concerned about “pimping” the business as it were. We make sure potential sponsors have values congruent with ours and that they are appropriate partners so it shouldn’t be a concern, but… To be honest, it’s been easier to get sponsorship interest than buy-in from the organization!

    Just another challenge in the life of a development professional!

  • Every Murder Is Real -E.M.I.R. is a victims’ assistance center. We work with famiies and
    community members who have been affected by homicide and violence. This is a issue
    that most people don’t want to hear about , it is a very serious problem. We have tried to
    soften are image. We work to heal the living to live a healthy life. I am trying to see how
    cause marketing can work with our organization. What about a memory quilt project.
    Quilts for the families who have lost a love one , using clothing or a special article from
    the deceased. Or quilt for Peace. Do you think a store like AC Moore or Michael’s would
    work since they sell craft items.
    Please send me your opinion.
    Thank You Victoria Greene

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Grace, thanks for your note. Joe has had great success in local cause marketing! It is an approach we often overlook.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Marla, I appreciate your frustration. Sounds like you’re doing all the right things.

    What specifically are the barriers put up by senior management?

  • Nancy Schwartz

    I think that’s a fantastic idea, Victoria. The AIDS quilt is a well-tested example of the healing, and symbolic, power of crafting.

  • Grace, thanks for writing. Through my nonprofit, I offer a cause marketing training program you might be interested in called Next session is in September.

    Marla, I feel your pain. It always hasn’t been easy for us either! But there are many legitimate examples of cause marketing to draw from that can ease concerns that cause marketing is “pimping” the organization. “Promoting” is a much better word….all while getting PAID for doing it in the form of dollars raised at the register!

    Victoria, I think you’re heading in the right direction with your ideas! You are dealing with a tough issue, but here in New England TJ MAXX stores have done point-of-sale programs for domestic violence victims–another tough issue.

    I like the quilting idea in that perhaps you could create a large paper quilt that can be filled in by consumer purchases and donations at the front of the store. When filled in perhaps the quilt will say “Quilt of Hope.” Just one idea, but I like your thoughts on presenting something different. You too may benefit from

  • Thanks for the great article! I have two questions…

    This is pretty basic but where do you start? How does one approach a corporation to begin a point-of-sale program for a local or state non-profit?

    Any advice on avoiding political landmines with point-of-sale programs – other than making sure the situation is a good fit?

  • Hi Jennifer,

    There is a lot more info on my blog on how to start a cause marketing program. Most frequently, cause marketing programs begin with companies you already know or with whom you already have a relationship. You’ll find they will give you the experience and confidence to approach companies outside your network.

    The good thing about point-of-sale programs is that they are pretty clear. Sometimes the biggest breakdown in communication comes from the business when they realize they really have to motivate their employees to ask their customers to support the program. This is critical. Most things don’t sell themselves and point-of-sale is one of them.


  • Melinda

    I don’t want to be on the fence, because I really like the idea of cause marketing for our organization (and my director is also all about it), but I feel stuck on the fence anyway, because I’m having a hard time nailing down the benefits we can offer to entice those potential corporate partnerships.

    Our work has been largely quiet/behind-the-scenes up until now (an image I’m desperately trying to change), and so our public exposure network is currently pretty limited. I probably need to think more outside of the box in our case, but the only benefits I’ve been able to come up with so far are emotional payoffs: because our mission is to celebrate and strengthen all the giving going on in our state (among every kind of person, and with every type of gift), an investment in our organization can be tied to that legacy of growing our state’s culture of giving.

    But would companies invest to be connected with such a legacy, when it’s still in its infancy in many ways?

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