Cause Marketing & The Beanstalk

Jack_2On Wednesday I spoke at the Center for Nonprofit Success program on cause marketing.  It was held at the conference center at UMass Boston, a truly spectacular building with beautiful views of the ocean and state-of-the-art conference rooms with all the latest gadgets and gizmos.  Besides having a little trouble parking, it was a great place to have an event.

My co-presenter was Miriam May, the wonderfully articulate Executive Director for the Massachusetts Chapter of Komen for the Cure.  Together we spoke to a good crowd of 50 nonprofit professionals on our respective cause marketing programs.  Of course, there was a big difference between mine and Komen's cause marketing efforts. 

They're raising tens of millions of dollars and I'm not (even close).  They're working with a long list of some of the biggest and best brands in American business.  I'm working with handful of great companies here in eastern Massachusetts.  Their program has been around for years.  Mine only four.  The contrasts between our two programs made for an interesting presentation that I think everyone found informative.  I know I was reminded of a few things:

Nonprofits have a lot to learn about marketing.  Whenever I speak with nonprofit professionals they are always eager to learn more about marketing their organizations--hence the interest in cause marketing.  But I think much of the interest in cause marketing comes from a greater desire to better market their organization in general.  Unfortunately, they're not getting a lot of help in that area--except from the Nonprofit Success folks who just this year added a cause marketing program.  At least they're headed in the right direction.  Last week, the Mass. chapter of AFP had their annual philanthropy conference in Boston.  They had like a thousand people at the event.  And not one speaker on cause marketing and other programs on marketing were pretty slim.  How sad is that.

Cause marketing isn't for the faint of heart.  A lot of small nonprofits see how much money the big shops are making on cause marketing and get all starry-eyed about the potential for them.  The reality is that starting and maintaining a cause marketing program is hard work, expensive, risky and generally unprofitable in the beginning.  The big shops we all admire paid their dues long ago and are now reaping the rewards of their efforts.  There are no free rides in cause marketing.  The gods sell all things for a fair price.

Giants are best viewed from afar.  Big cause marketing operations like Komen, St. Jude, Product RED and Make-a-Wish are the giants in cause marketing.  It's great to look up to them, but they shouldn't be your role models.  Why not?  For the same reason the late runner-philosopher George Sheehan discouraged average runners from getting their training advice from elite marathoners: "They're animals."  What George meant was that elite runners are in a whole different class, have different rules and have unique metrics for measuring success.  In short, if copying a successful program like Komen's doesn't intimidate or frustrate you, it will most certainly mislead you. 

Become Jack the giant slayer.  The Big Boys (and Girls) are cautious and conservative, and with good reason.  They have valuable brands and fat coffers to protect.  You probably don't--and you should take advantage of your lowly state.  Be more nimble, try new things and accept more risk.  Jack outsmarted the giant and eventually slew him.  You can too--if you can use put your wits to good use as Jack did. 

Cause marketing is not a stand alone.  It's not a cure-all.  You still need to write grants and chase major donors.  Cause marketing can enhance your success in these areas but it will never replace them.  It's like thinking that the Internet and email will be THE medium (like I did in 1999) instead of just another medium alongside print, TV, radio, direct mail, etc.  In short, start a cause marketing program today.  But budget your time and resources accordingly, and don't lose sight of the bigger picture.

Cause marketing requires the right mindset.  Good cause marketers are progressive, curious, entrepreneurial, competitive, savvy, creative, fearless, stubborn, realistic and opportunistic.  If you're planning to start a cause marketing program but don't have at least a few of these qualities, you might want to pursue a different track in fundraising.  Taking a chance on a few worthless beans and battling a giant for a questionable pot of gold isn't everyone's idea of a fun day at work.