How Your Nonprofit Can Succeed with Cause Marketing

July 17, 2020

Lori Halley

By Lori Halley

“Would you like to round up your total to donate to the food bank?” the cashier asked Marco, who worked in marketing for an immigration rights organization.

“Sure,” he agreed, somewhat absent-mindedly. 

But when he got back home, he started thinking about it. How did that nonprofit partner with the grocery store? And why didn’t his nonprofit do that kind of marketing?

As he considered more, he realized that many of his favorite brands supported good causes. In the past year, he’d bought a jacket that benefitted environmental conservation, a recycled water bottle that promoted clean water access, and several specialty coffee beans that benefitted various local organizations.

What Marco was noticing was cause marketing — and you’ve probably noticed it before, too. Cause marketing is when brands demonstrate they’re socially aware by partnering with nonprofits. This kind of marketing is on the rise and likely to keep increasing.

According to a 2018 report from Cone/Porter Novelli, 78% of Americans believe companies must do more than just make money; they must positively impact society as well. 77% feel a stronger emotional connection to purpose-driven companies over traditional companies and 66% would switch from a product they typically buy to a new product from a purpose-driven company. 

People care about the companies they support, and what they stand for. Companies who want to prove themselves to these consumers are looking for opportunities to partner with nonprofits.

But how does the average nonprofit get into that kind of partnership? 

In this post, we’ll cover: 

What is Cause Marketing?

“I define cause marketing as a partnership between a nonprofit and for-profit for mutual profit,” says Joe Waters, co-author of Cause Marketing for Dummies. When a for-profit uses their brand to promote or raise money for a nonprofit, that’s cause marketing. 

Cause-related marketing can be as complicated as a full ad campaign or a special product, or as simple as the grocery store add-on Marco experienced. At any level of complexity, these partnerships offer benefits for both the for-profit brand and the nonprofit cause.

For-profits get:

  • Social cachet from being purpose-driven and socially responsible

  • Increased trust with their customers

  • Access to the nonprofit’s audience

  • Legitimacy from association with the nonprofit

  • Public goodwill

  • Increased sales

Nonprofits get:

  • Money

  • Access to the for-profit’s audience

  • Increased awareness

  • The benefit of the for-profit’s marketing resources 

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.

How Can I Use Cause Marketing?


Consumer expectations that for-profits will be socially engaged continue to rise. It’s safe to assume that Corporate Responsibility endeavors will continue to increase along with those expectations. Cause marketing is one of the ways companies engage with nonprofits, and it makes sense for nonprofits to consider pursuing these kinds of partnerships.

These partnerships are most easily suited to one-off campaigns focused on a single issue. Things like, “Buy this water bottle, and we’ll give 10 cents to build a well,” or “Round up your grocery bill and the difference will be given to our chosen charity” are easy for consumers to understand and participate in, as well as being simpler for the company to advertise. 

Cause marketing can be a good fundraising stream, but it’s not a standalone fundraising strategy. Marco decided to dip his toes into the cause-related marketing waters to see if it suited his organization. 

Getting Started with Cause Marketing


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. Make Connections and Find Your Assets


To find opportunities to start a cause marketing endeavor, don’t start by cold-calling Nike or Amazon. Instead, look for 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 Waters. 

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. Create the “Package”


What are you offering your corporate partner? What are those assets you identified in step one? What are the benefits they’d get out of a partnership with you? How does supporting a cause build their business? Before you can make an offer to a company, you need to know what you’re offering. 

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. Connect with the Partner


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 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 first asked how his organization could help with the company’s corporate 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. 

4. Fielding Offers


Of course, it might work the other way. Instead of making a pitch to a for-profit, they may make contact with you. In that case, consider:

  • Does the partnership make sense?

  • Do you want what they’re offering?

  • Are there conflicts of interest?

Remember, you’re offering for-profits a lot of legitimacy when you lend them your name and brand, so make sure you want to be associated with them.

Cause Marketing in Action


Cause marketing can take many forms. Here are three recent 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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