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How to Use Cause Marketing to Generate More Revenue and Grow Your Community

Author: Lori Halley
August 13, 2021
🕑 9 min read

One day, Marco—who works in the nonprofit sector—needed a new reusable water bottle. After searching around, he narrowed his options down to two. One was recycled plastic, decently priced, and had great reviews. The other was similar, but the company selling it also promised to donate 10% of their proceeds to a charity that gets clean water to impoverished communities.

As a nonprofit employee, Marco didn’t. He chose the bottle that supported the clean water charity (even though it was a little more expensive than the other option).

As he completed the checkout process, Marco started thinking. How did that charity partner with the water bottle company? And why didn’t his nonprofit look into doing something similar?

What Marco was noticing is called cause marketing — and you’ve probably noticed it before, too.

Read on to find out what cause marketing is, and how your nonprofit can use it to raise funds, gain new supporters, and advance your mission.

What is Cause Marketing?

Cause marketing is a mutually beneficial partnership between a nonprofit and a business. The business promotes their product by directing part (or sometimes all) of the proceeds to a nonprofit. It’s a way for them to demonstrate their social responsibility, while supporting a nonprofit whose mission aligns with their brand and values.

One of the first and most famous cause marketing efforts was the 1983 partnership between American Express and the nonprofit restoring the Statue of Liberty. Every time cardholders used their AmEx, the company donated a penny to the cause. They raised $1.7M this way. More card activity for the company + more money for the nonprofit = everyone wins.

Is Cause Marketing Effective? Here are the Benefits

More and more companies are recognizing the effectiveness of cause marketing.

According to the 2019 Porter Novelli/Cone Purpose Biometrics Study, 72% of Americans say it’s important to them that the companies they buy from reflect their values and 86% say they’re likely to purchase from purpose-driven companies.

This means that companies who associate themselves with a nonprofit experience non only an increase in sales, but also increased brand loyalty. Of course, the partnership also offers a massive benefit to the associated nonprofit.

Here are the benefits to each party involved:

Benefits to the for-profit:

  1. Public goodwill: the company establishes themselves as purpose-drive and socially responsible.
  2. Increased trust and brand loyalty: customers appreciate buying from a company whose values align with their own.
  3. Increased sales: customers are more likely to purchase a product when they know doing so also supports a worthy cause.
  4. Access to the nonprofit’s audience: the nonprofit promotes the partnership in their network, creating brand awareness and more customers for the company.

Benefits to the nonprofit:

  1. Diversified revenue: not only does the nonprofit receive a portion of the company’s profits, but the partnership could also result in new recurring donors and additional sponsorship opportunities.
  2. Access to the for-profit’s audience: more often than not, the for-profit has a much bigger marketing budget than the nonprofit, so they can spread the message to more people, increasing the nonprofit’s brand awareness, and helping bring in potential new supporters.

3 Steps to Get Started with Cause Marketing

Realizing that cause marketing can be a good fundraising stream, Marco decided to dip his toes into the cause marketing waters to see if it suited his organization.

So how does an organization go about building this kind of partnership? By finding their connections, analyzing their assets, creating an offer, and connecting with a relevant partner.

1. Identify Your For-Profit Partner

To get started with cause marketing, don’t just cold-call Nike or Amazon. Instead, look for companies whose work is similar or related to the work of your nonprofit (for example, Marco came across a clean water charity who partnered with a water bottle company). When you find a business whose values and purpose align with yours, the partnership will be much easier to promote and will ultimately attract more people who already have an interest in your cause.

To start, look at the relationships and assets you already have. “Assets are things you already have that are of value to a cause marketing partnership. One of the most valuable assets is an existing connection to a company,” says Joe Waters, co-author of Cause Marketing for Dummies.

Look for any kind of connection. Waters advises, “You might have a CEO that personally supports your cause. Do you have a corporate partnership that you can leverage?  Do you have a fantastic event that you can turn into cause marketing gold? Do you have a huge Facebook following? We all have something we can use to kick-off a cause marketing program. Work inside out.”

Potential connections and assets include:

  • Your board and their connections
  • Past corporate volunteers
  • Past corporate sponsors or donors
  • Events
  • Social media
  • Your organization’s reputation and name

Once you’ve exhausted the possibilities of an immediate connection, start looking a little further afield. “Look for contacts, people that know of your mission, but are not yet supporters,” Waters says. “My last job was at a hospital and our contacts were vendors. Many of them weren’t supporters, but they were aware of us and open to the suggestion of working together. Avoid cold calling as much as possible. Stick with warm leads — of any temperature.”

Marco realized that a company that sent volunteers every year for National Volunteer Week might be a good fit. He made a note to check in with their corporate philanthropy team.

2. Sell Yourself

Before you can make an offer to a company, you need to know what you’re offering. You’ll be much more likely to receive a positive answer if you can make it clear to the company how partnering with you will benefit them.

To package your offer, create a proposal that answers the following questions:

  • What is your organization’s mission and how is it relevant to the company’s work?
  • What is your current reach (i.e. how large is your community/audience)
  • How would the company benefit from the partnership?
  • How would supporting your cause help build their business?

You don’t have to be a giant organization with a famous name to appeal to for-profits. Waters notes,“ If you can’t connect with businesses based on your brand recognition, you have to connect based on what you offer, your marketing benefits. We beat out many a nonprofit because we had a better package to offer. It’s not always about the cause. That’s why they call it cause marketing.”

Marco didn’t have fame or a huge audience to offer, but his organization did have a solid regional reputation as an expert on their cause. The audience they did have was engaged and knowledgeable and could be of interest to his potential partner.

3. Build a Relationship

Once you have an “in” and know what you’re bringing to the table, you’re ready to make contact. With a warm prospect, you stand a better chance of getting past gatekeepers and right to the decision-maker. Depending on the company and your relationship, the people you want to talk to may vary: marketing, corporate social responsibility, or executives can all be part of a cause marketing discussion.

Unlike a corporate donation, cause marketing is a partnership that aims for mutual benefit. Therefore, it’s wise to approach your prospective partner with some ideas, but also a lot of flexibility. They’ll have their own marketing goals and a better idea of their capabilities — they may be able to offer something you hadn’t even thought of.

After he’d listed his assets and found some hard data about his audience, Marco set up a meeting with the team at his prospective corporate partner. He went into the meeting with a few solid ideas for how to work together but also made sure to ask how his organization could help with the company’s corporate social responsibility goals.

To his surprise, the company immediately offered a sizable in-kind donation of their products. As they talked more about cause marketing, the team began to think outside the box and offered to run a special campaign to donate all their profits on GivingTuesday to Marco’s organization. Marco was thrilled.

Bonus: When a Company Comes to You

Most of the time, you’ll be reaching out to companies, but of course, it could also work the other way. In that case, consider:

  • Does the partnership make sense?
  • Do their purpose and values align with yours?
  • Have they participated in similar partnerships in the past?
  • Will the mutual benefit be equal? (Or will they get much more out of the partnership than you?)
  • Do you want what they’re offering?
  • Are there any conflicts of interest?

It can be tempting to say “yes” to anyone who offers a portion of their profits to your organization, but don’t forget that a cause marketing partnership involves aligning two separate brands. This means that your brand will be associated with theirs and vice verse. If the company that reached out to you isn’t truly purpose-driven, has had bad PR in the past, or has questionable values or practices, it’s best to decline. Going ahead with a partnership like this could result in lost supporters and a PR nightmare for your organization.

How Do For-Profit Companies Pick a Cause?

With cause marketing on the rise, companies receive more and more collaboration proposals from nonprofits. So how do they ultimately decide who to work with? And how can your organizations increase your chances of getting selected?

As we already discussed, the number one thing you can do is reach out to a company where you already have connections. They’ll be much more likely to say “yes” if they already know and support you.

Other than that, here are a few things that companies look for in nonprofits:

  • The nonprofit’s mission aligns with the company’s values and purpose
  • The nonprofit’s mission resonates with the general public and/or the company’s target audience
  • The nonprofit has been actively working on advancing their mission and can demonstrate recent, relevant, and measurable impact
  • The nonprofit has a passionate and involved board of directors
  • The nonprofit has a clear vision and a detailed strategic plan for the next few years
  • The nonprofit has been active in the community, hosting events, and securing partnerships with other nonprofits and small businesses
  • The nonprofit has been featured in local media
  • The nonprofit has an active and engaged community of supporters

Use this list to help you determine whether your nonprofit is ready for a cause marketing partnership. If not, it may be a good idea to do a bit of work before approaching a potential for-profit partner.

Examples of Cause Marketing

Cause marketing can take many forms. Here are three examples of cause-related marketing campaigns to inspire your imagination.

1. Ben and Jerry’s Justice ReMix’d

Ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s has partnered with the Advancement Project National Office to raise awareness about criminal justice reform. A portion of proceeds from their Justice ReMix’d flavor go to the Advancement Project, and the company provides education and action suggestions to their customers. The Advancement Project National Office promotes the partnership with the hashtag  #JusticeRemixd.

Ben and Jerry 3Ben and Jerrys 2

2. The (RED) Campaign

(RED) partners with brands to create products and experiences to raise money to fight HIV/AIDS. Companies create (RED) versions of their products, and the proceeds go to a global fund that makes grants to HIV/AIDS organizations.

Red ExplainRed Products

3. Warby Parker “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair”

Optical company Warby Parker partners with social enterprise Vision Spring to donate a pair of glasses for every pair they sell. Warby Parker gets the image boost of helping, Vision Spring gets more resources to do their work.

Warby Parker

Cause Marketing: Good Potential for Nonprofits

Marco found that cause marketing was a good fit for his organization. He identified his connections and assets, built on his existing relationship with a company, and together, they created a campaign that truly benefited everyone.

Think about the companies your organization is connected to. As you’re considering options for corporate philanthropy, add cause marketing to your list of ways to work together.

Waters encourages small nonprofits to be bold and try it. He says, “You can do it! But you need to educate yourself, be realistic about what cause marketing can and can’t do and be willing to try and fail before you succeed.”

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