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.

Cause marketing basics

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”.

Benefits of cause marketing

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.

Cause marketing tips and best practices

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.

Final thoughts on cause marketing

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?