Cause Marketing: How to Find the Right Brand or Non-Profit Partner

Today’s political climate is shining a light on a concept that non-profits, and the brands they partner with, have been facing for decades. Consumers no longer choose a product or service solely based on the item itself, but on the company’s corporate social responsibility. Case in point: a recent Cone Communications study showed that 87% of Americans will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they care about.

Simply standing up for a cause - or in a non-profit’s case, finding any company to provide funding - isn’t enough. In order for brands and non-profits to thrive in both business and social spheres, the right synergies must be in place. We spoke with a few experts in this space to find out what makes an authentic partnership and how to measure its success.

Step one is to identify the right partner, which is a strategy in itself. “A brand or a company needs to define and align internally on exactly what their objectives are in order to bring clarity to the non-profit search,” explains Shannon de Laat, founder of cause marketing collective The Virtue Project. “A good partner can make all the difference to achieve cause-marketing success, which is why it is crucial to find one whose brand aligns with yours. When mission statements and values do not coincide, the partnership could actually damage your reputation.”

Liz Gilchrist, Managing Director of Events and Sponsorships at nonprofit AIDS service organization GMHC, speaks to that point. “Our history and our reputation, particularly within the LGBT community, is incredibly important and our clients are extremely vocal about our relationships outside of the organization—so every external partnership we enter must be both sympathetic and authentic, or we’ll get called out!”

GMHC Latex Ball with media partner LOGO

She continues, “As a fundraiser, it can be tempting to enter into partnerships for purely financial reasons—and at a nonprofit agency, we know that every dollar received will help us fund vital programs. That said—if the partnership feels inauthentic, it will often cause more harm in the long run and can impact our reputation with both clients and donors. Always keeping our clients (13,000 annually) at the forefront ensures that our partnerships remain authentic. For this year’s Latex Ball, GMHC partnered with the media company LOGO, owned by Viacom. LOGO spent weeks interviewing and filming members of the House and Ball community, including notable HIV and LGBT activists, to produce an incredible series of films for The LOGO-produced videos also included one specifically about GMHC and its services, which can (and will) be shown at other fundraising events throughout the year.”

Authenticity is at the core of this type of partnership, both for consumers and for the company internally. “The authenticity factor of partnerships is reflected in the connection the brand executives (and their extensions) have with the partner in consideration,” says the team at Optimist Consulting. “If both parties do not believe in each other’s mission, it will be felt by the consumer and read as disingenuous. Consumers are becoming hyper conscious of paid content and the same can be said for partnerships.”

Consumers are definitely watching, and they’re quicker than ever to react. When exploring a cause marketing initiative, brands should examine vulnerabilities across all areas to avoid such blunders. “Communication strategy should include informing audiences of the results of support throughout the process, not just announcing the endeavor to drive action or sales. A great example is the use of video footage from TOMS during their now-infamous shoe drops," says Tanya Rivas, Founder of PR With Heart. "Consumers see right through 'greenwashing' or 'purpose-washing,' which is why it’s so critical to pursue charitable partnerships or give-back models that integrate with brand DNA.”

de Laat points out one example in which businesses can engage in social impact in a way that realizes their own commercial objectives while also giving back. “An interesting [partnership] was how Lacoste, a brand instantly recognized by its iconic alligator chest patch, chose to (for the first time ever) allow that symbol to take a backseat and be replaced with a series of critically endangered species from across the globe," she says. "They did this in partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in order to help draw awareness to the number of these species left living in the wild. The limited edition shirts sold out, but Lacoste continued to accept donations (50% for IUCN’s conservation efforts and 50% to raising awareness for the cause and Lacoste’s Save Our Species program)." 


Pinpointing the right brand or non-profit to collaborate with is one achievement. Activating in a meaningful manner, on the other hand, takes creativity. Today’s partnerships are rarely one-offs; it’s no longer just about buying a table at a fundraiser, but about long-term relationships that serve both parties’ causes.

Christa Carr, Communications Director at The Glass House, notes that for her team, “Brands often want to get involved in our annual Summer Party, which takes place every June. Partnerships can entail press/VIP events followed by a campaign photoshoot and an online campaign involving social media, creating limited editions where proceeds benefit the Glass House. There are multiple ways we can continue to work together.”

This also includes product partnerships. She continues to say, “We had a wonderful collaboration with Hèrmes, which happened organically after several visits to the site, with inspiration from our then-exhibition on modern graphic designer and artist Elaine Lustig Cohen. We collaborated on several curated VIP and press events at their NYC flagship and at The Glass House. Hèrmes created the most beautiful limited-edition scarf, Centered Rhyme, which greatly benefited The Glass House towards preservation of the site.”

Hermes x The Glass House

Optimist Consulting highlights the benefits of this long-tail approach. “We typically advise our clients not to engage in one-time activations for any type of partnership, whether that be between brands or influencers. Long-term, multi-faceted collaborations naturally reflect as more organic relationships in the public-eye and they put more onus on the partner to deliver results.”

Another great benefit of ongoing relationships between brands and non-profit is the opportunity for employees to get involved. “Brands are still certainly willing to support us financially or with product donations, but there’s a real eagerness to bring the experience of supporting our agency to their staff,” says Gilchrist. “We have relationships with numerous corporate partners who will support our fundraising events but then encourage their staff to come to our offices and volunteer by serving lunch in our dining room, assembling safer sex kits and receiving NARCAN training. This is an amazing way to deepen the relationship that benefits both our clients and the internal goals of the partnering company.”

With so many ways to engage these partnerships, measuring their success is just as multi-faceted. There’s no single formula to calculate success, but there are different ways to both define and determine success.

“Calculating both business and social impact success is multi-dimensional and dependent upon mutually agreed upon goals at the outset,” says Rivas. That said, audience growth, sales, donations, reach, participation, endorsement, and awareness are all typical pieces to the overall reporting. One of my favorite means of evaluation is to begin by looking at the major actions taken and asking, 'Did they further business goals? How did they affect social good, solutions found, results achieved?'"

The Optimist Consulting team considers whether the partner brought increased visibility to the non-profit through means outside of funding; this can be measured through press or paid media value, the invitation of influential guests, or social media promotion. “If a brand activates their celebrity network on your behalf, it provides more leverage to generate press and awareness on another level that the charity (or agency) may not be able to produce on their own.”

The team continues, “For example, Town & Country has participated in a multi-year collaboration with the Hamptons Paddle for Pink as the national media partner. What started with dedicated advertising placements and cross-promotion, has led to the magazine’s publisher, Jennifer Levene Bruno, developing her own ‘Team T&C’ paddle race team and leading the charge as a top individual fundraiser. Town & Country has since also supported by bringing in key event sponsors including this year’s official timekeeper, Richard Mille. The partnership has grown organically, helping to increase the event’s visibility, overall ticket sales and fundraising opportunities, and ultimately promoting wider impactful awareness for BCRF’s mission.”

Team Town&Country, Hamptons Paddle for Pink Benefitting BCRF (Photo: Rob Rich)

In some cases, success can be seen via foot traffic. “We can see [partnership] results through increased visitorship and social media,” says Carr. “For example, even though a campaign has passed, we still see the photographs and story reemerge again and again years later, as many of the photographs become classic and timeless. We are still seeing photos from the wonderful photoshoot with Off-White; Virgil Abloh is a huge fan of modern architecture and we were honored to be a location chosen among his ‘House Hunting’ campaign involving other modern architecture. We still see photos from this Glass House campaign circulating and we often get photographers asking about this campaign as an inspiration.”

Financially, de Laat recommends that organizations determine dollar-to-impact ratio. “This ratio takes the amount of money you contribute and then shows the impact that will be created with that contribution. Once the dollar-to-impact ratio has been determined and giving begins, the impact you’re creating can then be clearly outlined and allow you to effectively market the change you are creating.”

Consider this: Generation Z has a direct spend of $44 billion and 85% more likely to purchase from a brand over purchasing another that does not support a cause (Fuse Gen Z Report on Social Activism and Cause Marketing). By fusing the right relationships, brands and non-profits wield much power in shaping our futures. 

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