4 Steps To Achieving Lasting Cause Marketing Partnerships


This is a guest post from Ashley Halligan, an analyst at Software Advice. You can reach Ashley at ashley@softwareadvice.com.

The idea of cause marketing has been around since the '70s -- that is, developing a partnership between nonprofits and for-profits with a sense of lateral interest and synergy, demonstrating ROI for both parties. How does a nonprofit begin a cause marketing endeavor? Professionals from both nonprofit organizations and weigh in to help NPOs establish a plan of action.

The first step is determining what the nonprofit actually hopes to achieve through the partnership. Some nonprofits are in dire need of funding--whether that be via grants or assistance with fundraising. Some nonprofits are seeking exposure, leveraging them into public light--boosting visibility, building credibility, raising awareness for a mission and cause, and, hopefully, building donor, volunteer, and member bases. Others, however, may be seeking labor or hard goods to further their mission. Knowing what your organization really needs will allow you to better establish a list of contacts and prospective business partners. You can then determine what your organization can offer the company. This is a sometimes overlooked step; keep in mind, an offer is only attractive if there is a a return on investment. Many nonprofits are seeking partnerships--what unique ROI can you offer?

When compiling prospective companies, keep existing connections in mind. Once you've determined your proposition value and a list of achievements being sought through a cause marketing partnership, begin your company research. Create a list of prospects whose mission and values seem in alignment with your NPO's missions, who have positive public image, and who you think your organization can also benefit. Also, consider companies who board members may already have a contact within. If not, consider who within the company would be the best person to reach out to.

Once a list of prospective companies is compiled, begin to reach out to the companies in mind. Learn as much about them as possible. Understand their public image and presence, their company philosophy and missions. Find a pain point that your organization can perhaps address for the company. It's important to connect the dots for them. Come prepared with a flexible agenda that can be modified to benefit all parties involved.

Once a partnership begins, regular nourishment is necessary to retain the relationship. Enough cannot be stated for the value in open, continual, honest communication. To ensure a relationship will have longevity, regular nourishment is necessary. An FPB should see a clear value in their partnership with your nonprofit. Additionally, keep the for-profit company active in your organization. Consider recruiting volunteers or company involvement for the nonprofit's events, endeavors, and public outreach. Having an emotional connection to a nonprofit significantly improves interest from both parties. And that mutual interest, paired with demonstrated ROI, are the adhesive components of a cause marketing relationship.

What experiences does your organization have with cause marketing? Do you have insights outside of these suggestions that can help a nonprofit achieve a successful cause marketing campaign? 

How to Choose a Cause for Cause Marketing

Last week I was meeting with a friend and talking cause marketing, of course. He explained he had recently seen a cause marketing promotion between the Arthritis Foundation and Massage Envy. and thought it was a great partnership. Massage Envy customers, Arthritis sufferers and their supporters would benefit from the therapeutic touch of massage and the Arthritis Foundation would reap a donation. Perfect.

I couldn't have disagreed more, for two reasons.

  1. People often overate what I call "Garanimal" cause marketing. (You may have heard of or even worn Garanimals - children's clothes that are easy to match because different animals show you what goes together.) They like things to match, including their cause marketing. Another example of Garanimal cause marketing is The Vitamin Shoppe's support for Vitamin Angels, which sends vitamins to kids in Third World countries. Matchy-matchy. But just because something matches doesn't mean it's a good fit. I would put other things first. More on that soon.
  2. Another reason I didn't care for this promotion was its connection with arthritis. I worked for the Arthritis Foundation in the mid-90's and know firsthand how difficult it is to market arthritis as a cause. It doesn't elicit the same type of commitment or response from people that other causes do. I think I know why. Arthritis isn't a killer - unlike AIDS, cancer, heart disease and hunger in Africa. Arthritis is about pain. Sufferers have an appointment with the rheumatologist, not the grim reaper. In short, if I was choosing a cause for my business I could think of better emotional hot buttons to galvanize shoppers. If the promotion doesn't inspire AF supporters to visit Massage Envy, and existing clients are unmoved emotionally by AF's message to help people with the disease, why bother with a partnership?

I'm not trying to bash the Arthritis Foundation or Massage Envy. Arthritis is a painful, terrible disease and Massage Envy is being a corporate citizen by supporting it. But I am using the promotion to point out why companies need to be clear on their cause marketing objectives and why they need a process for choosing the best cause partner.

If I was advising a business on how to pick a cause for cause marketing, here's what I would suggest.

  1. Follow your heart. If you really love a cause - no matter what it is - go with it. You can save butterflies from extinction, fight water waste from leaky faucets or petition the Chinese government to release the Pandas. If you're really passionate about a cause you should put your heart and soul. You may be the only person raising money to free the Pandas, but you'll be the best damn advocate they have. If Massage Envy is following their heart and supporting a cause they are truly committed to, godspeed to their efforts!
  2. Choose a cause with an army. If you don't feel strongly about any one cause, or if you're trying to choose between two nonprofits that combat the same issue, choose the one that can activate its supporters. People complain about "Pushtober" but the reason so many retailers slap on pink ribbons in October is because breast cancer supporters are active and loyal shoppers. They actually buy the products and services breast cancer organization suggest to them! Remember, cause marketing is neither philanthropy nor designed just for existing customers. At its best it woos new customers. The best way to accomplish this is to tap the nonprofit's loyal supporters - if they have any. I say this in all seriousness because while every cause has some donors, few have an army of supporters - people that are loyal, committed and active. That's the audience I want connected with my business!
  3. Lead with emotion. If you don't have a cause you love, or one with an army behind it, choose the cause that has a strong emotional message. That's the best hope you have of getting your customers' attention and attracting new customers. When I first started working at a safety-net hospital, its idea of a strong, emotional message was their mission: caring for poor people, many of them immigrants. Indeed, it's God's work, but not the right emotional message for cause marketing. Instead, we focused our cause marketing on children, women's services and cancer patients. [By the way, if you're a nonprofit reading this, this third point for businesses is your number one. Regardless of what your cause is, you need to lead with a strong emotional message to be successful in cause marketing. Yours may not be as strong as others, but it should be the strongest one you have.]
  4. Mix and match. It's only after following your heart or choosing an army or leading with emotion - or some combination - that I would go with Garanimal cause marketing. You're banking that consumers will reward you for something they rarely see: a match made in heaven.

Komen's Cause Marketing Program Isn't "Finger-Lickin' Good"


I want to love Komen's new cause marketing partnership with Kentucky Fried Chicken, Buckets for the Cure. I really do.

  • The partnership is a cause marketer's dream with 5,000 stores participating. Cause marketing programs work best with lots of locations and lots of foot traffic. KFC has both.
  • 50 cents of every bucket ordered by restaurant operators (interesting how the donation isn't triggered by customers buying buckets but by operators ordering them) during the promotion period (now through May 30th) will go to Komen.
  • Komen is guaranteed a cool million. But KFC is hoping to raise over $8 million, the largest single donation to a breast cancer cause.
  • The program also has lots of extras too, like pink buckets you can't miss and lids with calls to action to get involved.

Bear with me while I collect myself...heading toward the light...too beautiful, too wonderful.... ZZZAAAPPPP!

That's Scotty Henderson prodding me back to reality with his eye-opening post on Buckets for the Cure.

Sigh. It was lovely while it lasted. But, alas, Buckets for the Cure is a horrible promotion full of cause dissonance that strips it of charity and authenticity.

The Komen/KFC debacle is a warning to all cause marketers that money should never cloud our values, our goals or our common sense. As Scotty points out, the conflict between the fight against breast cancer that Komen champions and the fat-infested food that KFC sells is simply irreconcilable.

It's like Deadliest Catch sponsoring Sea World or Smith & Wesson funding a rifle range at Columbine High School.

With 2400 calories and 160 grams of fat, a bucket of extra crispy KFC should include the wig you'll need for cancer treatments after eating this crap for years.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh on KFC. After all, they do offer a grilled version of their chicken bucket that has fewer calories.

Chicken shit.

The same week as the Buckets for a Cure began, KFC rolled out the Double Down. Bacon and cheese wrapped in two fried chicken breasts. 540 calories, 32 grams of fat and 1,380 milligrams of sodium.

Come on, KFC, are you really saying you care about the well being of women with this beast? Not true, retorts the Colonel. The target demo for the Double Down is men! So we should feel better knowing that the Double Down is a widow maker?

Perched on my soapbox, let me conclude.

Why did Komen do it? For the money, of course, which will never be enough to educate women and others on the perils of fat-farms like KFC. Komen knew they would ruffle a few feathers with this promotion, but soon all will be quiet in the hen house.

This is America where money can justify any crime, wash away any guilt, sanitize any reputation and rationalize any bad idea.

As a cause marketer who loves to win and close deals, I understand why Komen wanted to work with KFC. The lure of seven-figures. The promotion. It's intoxicating. You talk yourself into it. Would I have advocated a similar partnership within my organization? Maybe. But thankfully my colleagues and superiors have better judgement than I do. Komen, at least in this instance, has been blinded by its ambitions.

It's a story as old as humankind. It's when fool is most consumed by success that a fox steals in to the hen house.