Cause Marketing for Ordinary Mortals

Sitting at Cause Marketing Forum's annual conference last month listening to all the great presentations from St. Jude's, Ronald McDonald House and other big charities on their hugely successful cause marketing programs and looking around at all the small nonprofits in the room actively listening and taking copious notes, I was reminded of something the late runner-philosopher George Sheehan said years ago.  In a similar setting but with elite athletes speaking on marathon training to ordinary runners he was blunt when it was his turn to speak: "Forget what they just told you," he advised the crowd.  "They're animals."  What he meant was that elite marathoners are so gifted and so fundamentally different from the rest of us, their advice and experiences really don't apply to the rest of us.  That's one of the things I wanted to tell the other nonprofits that populated the room that day.  Given the chance, here's what else I would have told them.

Big cause marketing programs have dedicated cause marketing teams.  Yours won't.  I'm just not director of cause marketing at my nonprofit, I'm also director of events.  I manage our marathon program, annual gala and golf tournament, among other things.  Oh, and I also do cause marketing.  But because I have a strong interest and expertise in the area, I try to bring cause marketing in to everything I do, including events.  Regardless of what we do, I'm always looking for that intersection of philanthropy, marketing and business.  You should too.

Big cause marketing programs raise gobs of money from cause marketing.  Yours won't.  Of course, raising "big money" is a relative term.  Even the millions of cause marketing dollars generated by cause marketing leaders like Komen or St. Jude's is only a small percentage of the total funds they raise.  On average, nonprofits raise just 5-15% from all corporate giving, including cause marketing.  Now, if you're raising $400 million a year, five percent is still a tidy sum.  But what if you organization only raises $400,000?  Five percent isn't so significant, right?  That said, you need to look beyond  money to the exposure cause marketing offers and the potential connections to  both individual donors and corporate foundations.  I hate to use the term "loss leader" when describing cause marketing, but its value to nonprofits certainly goes beyond dollars and cents.  Because if it was all about the money, no one would do it except the big players. 

Big cause marketing programs deal with cause branding, passion branding and corporate social responsibility.  Yours won't.   Local cause marketing programs are generally simple, limited, and transactional.  One of things I admire about big programs like St. Jude's is how sophisticated they are.  They have a lot of layers and moving parts: in-store promotion, point of sale, percentage-of-sale on products, media, celebrity endorsements, events, and all happening simultaneously to boot.  It's impressive.  That's why they have large teams to execute their cause marketing programs and why they raise tens of millions of dollars each year.  But that's not what your program is going to look like, nor does it have to to be modestly successful. 

Most local cause marketing programs are point-of-sale programs that involve little promotion or media beyond what's sold at the register, which is fitting because the success of the program hinges on the cashier making "the ask" (e. g. "Would you like to donate a dollar to help a sick child").  Most local cause marketing partners will limit the time they work with you to a specific time of year (Halloween and Christmas are big ones for us) so they can work with other charities the rest of the year.  Very few will deeply drink the cool-aid and commit to a long-term strategic partnership. 

While you should never stop trying to evolve cause marketing programs into multi-year, comprehensive, strategic partnerships (I have two to my credit in my four year tenure at my current position, despite executing two dozen cause marketing pacts of all sizes), sticking with just cause marketing doesn't make your efforts a failure.  It still serves your organization in a lot of important ways.  While not every oyster has a pearl, their soft bellies can make for a satisfying meal!