The Marriage of Cause and Company

At the 10th annual Cause Marketing Forum (CMF) in Chicago this week, I was struck by how far cause marketing has come. More companies are leveraging their financial and human capital to help nonprofits end hunger, ensure clean drinking water, eradicate infectious diseases, and so on. At CMF, recipients of the Cause Marketing Halo Awards and other cause marketing leaders shared best practices for building strong partnerships. To develop a long-lasting marriage, nonprofits and companies must bring their best assets to the table, work at the courtship, and nurture the relationship.

Here are some key takeaways from the cause marketing experts at CMF.


For Nonprofits:

  • Make sure you are registered for fundraising in each state that requires this. This is different than registering with the IRS as a 501(c)(3). Large nonprofits with in-house legal counsel are most likely already compliant, but I know of several small nonprofits that might be naïve about this legal requirement. Click here to read more about this.
  • DO NOT promote the cause marketing promotion on your corporate partner’s behalf! While this may help with fundraising, in doing so, you are actually advertising for the company and will have to pay Unrelated Business Tax Income (UBIT) on the fair market value of the marketing services you are providing for your corporate partner. Do not email your constituents about it, do not post flyers, and do not place ads for your corporate partners in your program materials. Besides, engaging in business activities, such as marketing services, detracts from your social mission and may jeopardize your tax-exempt status. So, what can you say about the promotion? Not much. Leave it at, “Thank you XYZ Company for supporting us. For more information, go to XYZ Company’s website” and include a link to the site with information about the promotion. That’s it. For more on this, check out attorney Ed Chansky’s article.
  • Talk to your corporate prospects about what’s in it for them. Have a few talking points about your cause and how XYZ Company’s investment could make an impact, but keep the pitch focused on what you can offer XYZ Company. Will the partnership increase favorability with customers? Will it increase sales? Will it increase employee retention? Share success stories about how other corporate partners benefited from their relationship with your organization.
  • In the first meeting, LISTEN to what your potential corporate partner wants. Don’t bring a ton of handouts to the first meeting. Ask questions and take notes so you can craft a partnership opportunity that addresses your corporate prospect’s business objectives. And DO YOUR HOMEWORK! Get online and research the company, their competitors, and the contact you are meeting with. The more you know, the better your questions will be.
  • Split your cause campaigns and programs up into different .org domains. You can attract sponsors for each different site and build up the interactive web features around a particular purpose. A great example from my days at the American Heart Association:,,, and about 15 other domains. On that note, according to Nancy Gofus, COO of .ORG, 81 percent of survey respondents believe an organization’s website is still the most trustworthy place to go for information (social media is great, but don’t neglect your website).
  • Tell stories! Who doesn’t love a well-told story? It’s why the movie industry is so huge. Craft stories about what your cause is doing and tell them well. Use pictures and videos!


For Companies:

  • Use your fabulous marketeers to promote the heck out of your cause marketing promotion. After all, it is a promotion. To maximize ROI for you and your nonprofit partner, you need to promote the campaign. In case you haven’t seen the research yet, your customers and employees actually want (and maybe even expect) you to partner with causes on their behalf. So be proud! Your stakeholders will thank you and you’ll make a much bigger impact on the issue your have chosen to address.
  • Be transparent. Don’t mislead consumers. Tell them exactly how much is going back to the cause.
  • Develop a cause program that achieves your business objectives and meets consumers’ fundamental human needs for a fulfilling life: certainty, variety, contribution, growth, significance, and connection. Inspire consumers to take action and be a hero for the cause. Then, reward them with loyalty program perks!
  • Incentivize consumer action! Everyone loves a freebie! Reward desired actions with coupons, discount codes, free gifts, etc. This is also a very measurable tactic!
  • Test your cause campaign with your company’s employees first before you put it in front of customers. Have them participate in volunteer projects or pro bono service with the chosen nonprofit. This will give you the opportunity to solicit feedback from a key stakeholder group and tweak the campaign before going to market. This degree of employee engagement also increases employee morale and productivity. And it will give you real stories to share with external audiences. Remember, your employees have families and friends – turn them into ambassadors for your company and your cause campaign!
  • If your cause partner comes under fire for a decision you may not agree with, talk about it. Maybe you can work through it in marriage counseling. Remember, at the end of the day, partnering with this cause is still doing something that’s good. Be brave. Pointing fingers only detracts attention from the lifesaving work that needs to be done.
  • For crowdsourced donation campaigns, use responsibly designed systems. It’s very easy for a tech savvy individual to cheat by gaming the system. If you do go down this path, rather than creating an “opt in” for voters to share their contact info with the nonprofit, make it an “opt out”. Your nonprofit partners deserve the opportunity to cultivate relationships with their voters.


For Both:

  • Create clear simple messages like Believe in zero and then leverage all of your resources to spread the word.
  • Leverage the power of social celebrity clout. Discuss which celebrities care about your issue and how you can approach them to take a stand in your campaign.
  • Be authentic. Don’t force a fit where there isn’t one. Date around. Look deep inside your organization and examine its core purpose. Seek partners who can help address that purpose with your shared target audience.
  • Start small. Don’t try to go too big with your cause marketing promotion too fast. Pilot in one market or region and then apply lessons learned as you expand.
  • Be responsible. Be a force for good, not evil.


When a cause and company build a strong partnership, stakeholders will celebrate the union by taking the desired action and ultimately making the world a better place thanks to your campaign.