Guarding Your Nonprofit Brand and Guiding Your Marketing Partnerships: Principles to Follow

Read the case study on the Komen-KFC partnership.

Choosing a corporate partner or sponsor for your nonprofit has tremendous potential to either help or harm your organization and its mission. There are many great examples where such sponsorship has proven to be a genuine win-win. And then there are the others.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I’m talking about Buckets for the CureSusan G. Komen for the Cure’s® cause partnership with Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), launched via a huge TV advertising campaign. The campaign came on the heels of KFC introducing its mammoth-scale, heart-stopping Double Down sandwich.

Such a dramatic partnership—connecting a health cause with unhealthy food—generated a huge response and created a chance for all of us to think hard about all aspects of the partnership business. Here are three key themes that emerged from the fabulous, spirited and insightful comments you graciously offered up. (Thank you, again!)

1. Consider the long-term impact: Partnerships can strengthen brand—or do the opposite

There’s no denying that this campaign has roused many loud, angry voices. What’s less clear is the long-term impact it’ll have on the organization. But these findings are crystal clear:

Trust in Komen has been undermined

Komen failed to convince its base (and the broader public) that the connection between a health organization and unhealthy food makes sense.

In my initial case study, just to recap, I asserted that Komen’s decision to partner with KFC has damaged the trust that exists between it and its supporters. Most commenters agree.

Komen’s actions thus far have:

  • Undermined its credibility. (It’s hard to believe they are focused on women’s health.)
  • Eroded its authenticity. (What does the organization stand for if they can’t see what’s wrong with this partnership?)
  • Alienated its supporters. (See the comments below from walkers, donors and nonprofit marketing and fundraising experts.)

It’s not just about an immediate payoff – it’s about impact on mission, brand and the larger social good.

—Katya Andresen, COO, Network for Good

Despite the fact that most commenters laud Komen for its good work, several cite past Komen partnerships that rubbed them the wrong way and its over-emphasis on marketing.

A classic case of fundraising undermining mission and of how branding is widely misunderstood in the nonprofit world. Every organization’s brand is what is does, not what it says.

—Rebecca Leet, Nonprofit communications consultant

I’m a two-time cancer survivor and am absolutely sick and tired of seeing cancer (specifically breast cancer) used as a marketing tool. It annoyed me before I was diagnosed, but now it just aggravates me. I will go out of my way to buy things that are not pink-branded.

—Lisa, Breast cancer survivor

This partnership is just the last straw of Komen selling out over the past couple years.

–Elliott Greenberger, See3

But Komen is reaching women in underserved communities with this campaign
Those few commenters who support the partnership do so because working with KFC is one of the few ways Komen can reach underserved women where they are.

KFC has tremendous brand loyalty among African-Americans. However un-nourishing it may be, it is an affordable and well-known source of comfort food. As key decision-makers for food purchases, women are the obvious target of a breast-health awareness campaign and how better to reach them than over a warm meal?

Women of color and women of little means are disproportionately affected by breast cancer. Their outcomes are far less positive than those with resources, especially health insurance. Cultural inhibitions and lack of education on health issues also contribute to their higher rates of mortality and morbidity.

Could the KFC-Komen partnership have been handled more artfully? Probably, but its goal is honorable. As marketers, we should never forget that our job is to see things from our target’s point of view and to empathize with their lives, needs and aspirations. It’s all about them—not our own personal aesthetic, however politically correct and Whole Foods-y it happens to be.

—Susan Bodiker, Executive Director, Marketing & Communications
University System of the District of Columbia

To me, it’s a virtual battle in a greater war at all levels.  And here’s the battlefield: Are more people educated or more interested in Komen for the Cure who wouldn’t otherwise be aware of the topic or did more people who normally don’t eat Fried Greasy Chicken suddenly decide to because the bucket was pink?  Obviously, I’m thinking the former of those two occurred.

Imagine if everyone rallied around Komen for trying to change things from within a bad diet society, instead of railing to either produce more literature which will fall in front of the same blind eyes or urging governmental legislation that will induce resentment more than understanding of lifestyle choices.  War may be an art, but individual battles are inherently ugly.

—Holt Murray, Cause Partnership Manager/Development
Boston Medical Center

Most volunteers dismayed
Many readers who have participated in Komen’s Race for the Cure decided to devote their volunteer efforts elsewhere as a result of the KFC deal.

I don’t see myself volunteering for Komen again.  I’ve moved on to less pink pastures.

—Bonnie Wahiba, Special Assistant to the President, Child Trends

Others are disappointed but will continue to raise money for Komen.

I am distressed at this mismatch, but will walk.

—Pat Pasqual, Director, Foundation Center, Washington, D.C.

And this is an era when many donors and other supporters do more due diligence than ever before
I no longer purchase products solely to direct money towards an organization.

If I want to give money, I give money.  If I think a commercial company is living its brand, then I’ll buy their product.  By that, I mean they give employees time off to volunteer, they truly change their product to be healthier and less processed, or they make real changes to be environmentally sustainable.

—Dee Boling, Director of Communications, Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine

Long-term impact uncertain
Even with such a generally negative reception to the Komen-KFC partnership, future impact on the Komen’s relationship with its supporters is debatable.

The stuff that happened with KFC actually doesn’t come up too much, especially on the local level. I will say, I don’t have any problem with fast food places working with nonprofits, even health ones like Komen.

The Komen-KFC deal was really poorly executed  (the promotion should have been associated only with the grilled chicken product with a side salad thrown in, and timed months away from the introduction of KFC’s Double Down, a heart attack on a plate). Because of that it opened the door to every type of criticism.

—Joe Waters, Director of Cause & Event Marketing
Boston Medical Center

Some of you will find it easy to forget this partnership:

Yes, it was a misstep on Komen’s part. But the mistake does not erase the good that Komen does.


And others, not so easy:

Komen’s marketing brilliance is evident in the broad scope corporate/organizational relationships (and funding sources) they have developed to date.  I have always felt they were the game to follow in nonprofit marketing.

But the mighty do fall.  I can’t fathom who suggested they take such a giant step backwards to reduce their impact with all current, past and future corporate alliances.

—Barbara Southern, Director, Marketing & Fund Development
Organ Donor Center of Hawaii

But this is the most important takeaway
This represents a larger issue where nonprofits consistently choose money over strategic partnerships, dancing with the wrong partner and degrading their brand value.

—Geoff Livingston, Nonprofit PR Specialist and Blogger

2.   Be poised for effective crisis communications

Silence continues on the Komen front, at least in terms of any proactive conversation. When queried by bloggers or others in the field, the Komen staff did respond in very few words.

Here is the most in-depth response I’ve seen from Komen, solicited by Cause Marketing Forum. Komen spokesperson, Margo K. Lucero describes the care and effort that went into the organization’s intense decision-making process on its partnership with Komen. But she ends up not saying very much.

Silence is NOT golden

Komen already missed the boat in trying to repair damage done with its silence and non-response.

—Dee Boling, Director of Communications
Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine

Apologize, or at least explain, to supporters
We received input from students in Professor Donna McGinnis’ “Management in Nonprofit Organizations” course at Washington University in Saint Louis. This is the first course in the Master’s Degree program in Nonprofit Management and includes some MBA and MSW students as well.

Professor McGinnis’ students articulated what I heard from many of you, suggesting that Komen apologize to its constituents and admit that the Komen-KFC deal was a bad idea.  The students don’t think Komen should make a broadcast statement, but an apology to its base of donors and event participants will help repair the relationship.

Then there are those who suggest a more radical response, which I think is unlikely to happen:

Komen should cancel the sponsorship deal and announce very publicly that they “goofed.”  How refreshing would that be?  Imagine. Imagine too if when organizations and businesses made a misstep, instead of playing the victim or deflecting blame elsewhere – they actually had the courage to come forward and say “We made a mistake..”

—Pamela Grow, Fundraising consultant

Communication strategist, Holly Minch (who also asks where are the non-white, non-wealthy voices in the Komen debate) proposes the most creative, and I believe the most productive, solution —that Komen use this crisis as an opportunity to lead the field.

Komen should embrace the crisis as a catalyst. If the organization doesn’t have clear criteria by which to screen potential partners, this is a good time to create and publicly commit to those criteria. If those criteria are in place, maybe it’s time for a refresher for all staff who engage in the vetting process.

Komen can retain its leadership by taking leadership on this issue—convening a dialogue of organizations that regularly wrestle with this same issue to surface industry standards and refine them.

—Holly Minch, Nonprofit communications strategist

NOTE: To ensure you don’t fall into this kind of black hole, here are three proven ways to make an impact when message control is out of your organization’s hands.

Be prepared to be stung—like it or not

Breast Cancer Action (BCA) jumped into the huge hole created by Komen’s silence, quickly and aggressively with its What the Cluck campaign. To date, just a month after the campaign launched, BCA has collected nearly 5,000 signatures protesting the Komen-KFC partnership and the larger issue of “pinkwashing.”

But is this the best way to respond to a peer organization’s misstep when you’re all working for the same cause?

My sense is that the reaction of Breast Cancer Action was a bit unseemly in itself.  BCA is absolutely entitled to take issue with what Komen did, and use it as teachable moment, but I felt the tone and tenor of their “What the Cluck?” webpage is inappropriately opportunistic, aimed as much at scoring points against a competitor than educating the public about the relevant health issues.  At least that’s what came through to me.

In the worlds of business or politics, we expect that when one party screws up, the other party will exploit it for sales or fundraising advantage.  In the nonprofit world, the public expects a greater degree of comity and the sense that “we’re all working together.”  Of course, we all know that nonprofit organizations are in fact highly competitive, seeking to establish their brand while raising money from the same pool of potential donors.  But the public face of this has to be managed carefully.  Gloating over Komen’s misfortune, even if self-inflicted, creates the impression that part of BCA’s mission is to take down Komen a notch or two.  I may be less inclined to support Komen at the moment, but BCA’s response had made me equally disinclined to support them.

—George Waldmann, Fundraising consultant

3.   Define standards for partner selection

Standards are a lifesaver. Whether they’re in the form of a checklist, template, style guide or list of standards, they prevent duplication of effort (deciding the right thing time and time again) and ensure that colleagues across organizations are acting consistently, so that their supporters know what their organizations stand for.

Nonprofits who engage in cause marketing should have a clear statement of the kinds of companies and products with which they will and will not partner.

—Debra Askanase, Nonprofit Web 2.0 expert

I’d put it even more broadly than that. I’d say nonprofit organizations that partner with other organizations—for profit and nonprofit—should define clear criteria that are used consistently as the basis of partnership decision making.

“A cause partner that’s a good fit is one with money,” says Joe Waters, cause marketing extraordinaire at Boston Medical Center. But even Joe thinks that every organization needs to carefully screen its partners, and has crafted the 10 commandments of cause partnering. The two commandments that leap out at me are these:

  • You shall choose your cause marketing partners carefully. Waters suggests that a cause marketer take a Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm, like the one that medical professionals use. Basically, don’t hurt your cause, your constituents or your partner.
  • You shall create cause marketing programs that are win-win. It’s all about helping each other. The company wants the halo effect of partnering with a cause; your organization wants visibility and to raise money.

Geoff Livingston, a nonprofit PR specialist and blogger, cites these criteria for solid cause partnerships. He does an excellent job of cutting to the chase and these criteria are a must (you can extrapolate them to all partnerships, not just cause marketing):

  • Does the campaign have a clearly-stated theory of change so you can measure the impact it has on your stakeholders, not just the financial gain?
  • Does the prospective partner offer products or services that have historically or currently cause damage to those you help? (Komen left this one off its list.)

Here are some useful partnership selection standards from the field:

Student Leadership Services is a small non-profit with a large statewide scope.  The SLS network of school-based chapters focus on health and safety initiatives led by youth.  We are celebrating our 28th year and utilize more than 400 alumni volunteers.  Because we are a youth network, we are very cautious about sponsorships and partnerships.  Our approach is simple. We:

  • Compare missions of the local, state and national offices of potential sponsors/partners.
  • Review their other partners; who else do they sponsor?
  • Check for conflicts of interest or duplication of efforts.  I have found that there are sometimes smokescreens with organizations that make them not as honorable as they appear.
  • Do background checks on key personnel as a matter of course for everyone with whom we work.
  • Seek a personal relationship or recommendation by the SLS key leadership, such as our board of directors or alumni.
  • Look for personal interest or political interest to benefit the sponsor more than help the cause.

—Pam Voss-Page, Executive Director, Student Leadership Services Today

I worked for several years in the breast cancer community, and that organization (Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization, Chicago) took a very careful and measured approach to acceptance of corporate gifts and sponsorships.

  • In concert with the medical advisory board, the board of directors approved a gift acceptance policy that required every potential corporate gift/sponsorship be reviewed by a committee of the board for any health-related conflicts.
  • Additionally, the organization would accept no gifts from any corporation or subsidiary that manufactured, produced or sold either alcoholic beverages or tobacco products because of the direct, scientific links to not only breast cancer, but other cancers as well.
  • What this meant at the time was that the organization could not accept gifts from Kraft, because they were owned by a parent company (formerly Phillip Morris, now known as Altria) that produced and sold both alcoholic beverages and tobacco products.  Same issue at the time for subsidiary companies of RJR Nabisco.
  • Diet and healthy lifestyle were talked about at the time this corporate gift acceptance policy was being debated (1997-1998), and I don’t recall anyone suggesting specific food companies that might be considered suspect by the public.  What a difference a decade plus can make!!  With so much more research related to the connection between high-fat diets and incidence of cancers, I suspect this same organization would be very careful about any direct relationships with food producers or restaurants.

—Eleanor Kittelson, Executive Director, Washington’s National Park Fund

An organization should test grassroots buy-in (Komen should have spoken with women supporters via focus group) before finalizing partnerships.

—Jane Rieso, Creative Supervisor, Oblate Missionary Society, Inc.

Summing It Up

In the end, it’s figuring out the right balance.

Your organization’s identity is precious—hard earned and easily damaged. Your commitment to your mission is deep and unquestioned.

When a partnership enters the picture, the balance is inevitably altered. And you must remain vigilant to all its potential consequences.

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