In Defense of Cause Marketing

Less3 Katya's Non-Profit Marketing Blog has an excellent summary and critique of the Buy (Less) Crap movement that everyone's been talking about.  The Buy Less folks are parodying the RED campaign to advocate that "Shopping Is Not A Solution.  Buy (Less).  Give More."

Katya's done a great job of separating fact from fiction in the debate, and you can read other good commentaries at Trent Stamp, Marketing For Good and IdUnited.  As a cause marketer, I know my comments are suspect, and are a bit like getting no smoking tips from Philip Morris.  So bear with me as I take a few deep drags.

Cause marketing is a bright, impressive, incredible...blip.  Cause marketing is certainly cool and seems to be everywhere, but it's just a blip in terms of dollars raised for most organizations.  Funds raised from corporate fundraising--of which cause marketing is just a sliver, mind you--only comprise 5-15% of the total dollars raised by nonprofits.  Where does the rest of the really serious dough come from?  The very people Buy Less likes most: Individuals who donate directly to the organization.  It's understandable that Buy Less wants as many people as possible to donate directly to nonprofits instead of through cause marketing programs, but who's left?  The five percent of donors who prefer to make their gift by buying t-shirts at the GAP?

Cause marketing is just another tool.  At my nonprofit we raise money in lots of different ways--major gifts, grants, corporate giving, direct mail, special events and cause marketing.  I list cause marketing last because it really is just another tool and not the only tool we use to raise money.  If Buy Less believes there's an insidious conspiracy afoot to topple direct giving they really need to stop watching 24.  It's like back in '99 when I thought the printed newsletter we relied on each month would soon die and everything would be on the web.  Today, that printed newsletter is very much alive, as are the newsletters for email, web and mobile.  The pie's not any bigger; it's just been cut in to smaller slices.  And if you're full service shop not doing cause marketing, you're leaving money on the table, but not much.

Cause marketing is not about the money. Buy Less has complained that RED is spending more money than it's raised, which is a valid criticism if you believe that cause marketing is only about raising money, which I don't believe it is.  Don't get me wrong, money's great, but cause marketing delivers so much more.  It increases visibility.  It builds brand.  It creates wealth.  Look at the exposure RED has generated for the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.  Look at how well known and respected RED has become as a charity in less than a year.  Finally, consider this: how many major donors have stepped forward to support RED's mission, even if it was by making gifts to competing organizations?  How many foundations are taking a second look at Africa because of RED?  They say that RED has spent $100 million to raise $18 million in donations.  Time will show that the investment was a good one.

Cause marketing is a great way to buy the things we need.  Buy Less would have people believe that RED shoppers are buying "crap" and other useless things.  Things like t-shirts, sneakers, cell phones, music, sunglasses, watches, jeans, etc.  Pretty decadent and useless stuff, no?  Cause marketers generally tap the most mainstream of products--I just heard of a campaign involving Clorox Bleach--because that's how you can reach the most shoppers.  So we're not talking about a lot of products that are "crap" or extravagant.  We're talking about things people love, need and use everyday.

Cause marketing is an important fundraising vehicle that raises modest money, enhances visibility, builds brand and enables other forms of fundraising, particularly major gifts and grants.  It's also an easy way for consumers to buy the things they need while supporting their favorite causes.  If that makes cause marketing wrong, I'd rather not be (right).