Cause Marketing 101: How to Partner With For-Profits for Mutual Gain

Cause marketing is something your organization should know more about, if you’re not already involved. Consider the headline-grabbing Red/Gap and Susan G. Komen/Pink everything partnerships!

But cause marketing can take many other shapes as well, including going local to partner with small businesses in your community (which works especially well for organizations that serve a specific region, town or neighborhood).

Selecting the right marketing strategies is more critical now than ever, with resources so scarce. So for those of you who don’t have cause marketing in place (and that’s most nonprofits), the question is: How do you know when cause marketing is right for your organization? And if it is, how do you bring the program to life?

I spoke recently with cause marketing expert Joe Waters, author of Cause Marketing For Dummies and the Selfish Giving Blog, to answer these questions and more.

1. Joe, why is it so tricky to understand cause marketing? How do you define it?

Cause marketing is one of those terms that means a lot of things to different people.

Some people call anything related to corporate giving cause marketing. Others think that the marketing of causes is cause marketing. But if you go back to 1983 and look at one of the very first cause marketing campaigns between American Express and the nonprofit restoring the Statue of Liberty you’ll discover what the term really means. Whenever American Express cardholders used their card, the company donated one cent to the renovation of the Statue. Those pennies added up and American Express and its cardholders contributed $1.7 million to the effort. Here’s the kicker: use of the American Express card increased 28 percent. The promotion was truly win-win. A win for American Express, a win for restoring Lady Liberty.

It’s in the spirit of this important promotion that I define cause marketing as a partnership between a nonprofit and for-profit for mutual profit.

2. Joe, you are all cause marketing, all the time. And you’ve just written “the book” on the topic. What makes you so passionate about this strategy?

Two things. First, I truly believe that any nonprofit or company–of any type or size–can use cause marketing. Cause marketing just isn’t for Komen, Product RED, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. If you scale your program for local companies and are realistic about what you can raise, you’ll be successful! Nor, from the business owner point of view, is cause marketing just for Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Businesses of every size can demonstrate your commitment to the community and build your favorability with customers.

Second, cause marketing has an important connection with two interests of mine: technology and social media. Cause marketing began as an innovative marketing strategy. Now it’s a marketing strategy that is being shaped by innovation. As the web, social media, location-based services and mobile technology are growing and changing, cause marketing is adapting and evolving with them.

3. We all hear about the big players and their successes. How can small and medium nonprofits get started with cause marketing?

A lot of nonprofits begin with developing a program idea and listing the companies they want to approach. That’s not a bad start, but I have a better one: Start by looking within your organization for assets. Assets are things you already have that are of value to a cause marketing partnership.

One of the most valuable assets is an existing connection to a company. You might have a CEO that personally supports your cause. Or your organization might have a longstanding vendor relationship with a company that would make a good candidate for cause marketing. Other assets include events, social media – anything a company would value in a partnership. Causes don’t usually know where to start when it comes to cause marketing. The key is to look within and focus on assets that can jump-start your program.

4. Can you give me an example or two?

Over the July 4th holiday I hosted a contest at my blog asking for examples of Independence Day cause marketing. I received a lot of responses and posted them on my blog. Two of these focus on small companies and nonprofits; and both show a lot of creativity and initiative in using cause marketing to give back.

5. One push back I hear from nonprofit folks is that cause marketing requires a huge effort and can actually decrease traditional giving. Is that true?

For every study that says cause marketing decreases giving, there are five more that say it increases donations. Cause marketing is a positive force for nonprofits, but like any form of fundraising it requires work and resources. In our book we make it easier by taking the reader through the steps of identifying things that could be valuable to a cause marketing partnership and how to recruit a partner beginning first with those companies you already call supporters but not partners.

6. Are smaller, local nonprofits at a disadvantage in the cause marketing game?

I don’t believe so. Local nonprofits actually have two advantages over large nonprofits: 1) 2010 research out of Cone, a Boston cause marketing firm, suggests that consumers are gravitating to more local causes and are expecting companies to follow suit; 2) Social media can help level the marketing playing field. These tools are a competitive advantage for nonprofits that know how to put it to work for their business partners that are increasingly interested in location-based and hyper-local marketing.

7. What are realistic expectations of results for the first few years?

I think raising 5 – 15% of your revenues from cause marketing is a realistic goal. So if your nonprofit annually raises $2 million, you can expect to add around $200,000 to your bottom-line.

You can also expect heightened public awareness of your organization thanks to cause marketing, although nonprofits generally lack the expertise and resources needed to accurately measure increased awareness. Nevertheless, in the book we give nonprofits a few key ways to evaluate their success with cause marketing beyond the dollars it raises.

8. Joe, your book is a terrific guide for those just getting started with cause marketing and those eager to improve the impact of their efforts. Where can they get your book, and learn more from you?

I have a book page on my blog that’s a good first stop, with special offers for purchasers including free teleconferences and webinars with me.

9. What other cause marketing learning resources can you recommend?

My blog Selfish Giving, of course! I’ve been writing it since 2004 and there are over 700 posts to learn from.

Another great resource is Cause Marketing Forum. They have a valuable web site with lots of free information. Members have access to interviews and teleconferences and white papers. CMF also has a great annual conference in Chicago that is a must-attend for cause marketers.

What’s standing in the way of your organization putting for-profit partnerships into play? Please share here.

Joe and I will respond to as many comments as possible!