Whose Cause, Anyway?

“Would you like to include an additional amount for the St. Jude’s Fund?” the clerk asked brightly as she totaled my purchases. “It’s the last day of our effort,” she continued, when I didn’t immediately respond.

So, how does buying a pair of slacks tie into the St. Jude’s Fund?

St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital may have one of the broadest, most well-established cause marketing efforts in place, partnering with leading brands across the country to raise money through product or service promotions. They place their strongest emphasis on the last two months of the year when, coincidentally, people are most likely to be in a charitable mood.

American Express is credited with originating the practice of cause marketing when it linked card usage with support for renovating the Statue of Liberty in 1983. A year or two later, the company joined with a fledgling organization, Share Our Strength, to leverage its ties with restaurants and the food service community to raise money to fight hunger.

In most instances, the case for cause marketing is not entirely altruistic. While it may benefit the not-for-profit "cause", the “for profit” partner usually has benefits in mind as well. Gain additional exposure. Make additional sales. Generate goodwill.

The Cause Marketing Forum claims that two thirds of brands engage in cause marketing and 97% of marketing executives believe it’s a valid business strategy.

Does such popularity guarantee success?

I don’t think so. In fact, I think it raises the bar on what it will take today for a cause marketing initiative to truly be successful. For either party.

Sponosoring organizations must recognize that today’s consumers are more likely to be skeptical than trusting when examining corporate motives. For example, when JPMorgan Chase recently sponsored the “American Giving Awards,” the New York Times labeled it “a gambit to promote its charitable work – and maybe polish its image, which has suffered since the financial collapse in 2008.”

Beneficiaries need to exercise caution as well. The presumption, of course, is that any revenues generated from the partnership will be an incremental increase in donations and/or an influx of new supporters.

But that may not be the case. In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, a University of Michigan researcher concludes that consumers see cause marketing transactions as charitable acts, and this can lead to a decline in subsequent charitable behavior.

“Our findings indicate that people appear to realize that their motives for participating in CM are more selfish than for charitable giving, reducing their subsequent happiness. Unfortunately, this does not prevent them from substituting it for charitable giving, which reduces overall charitable donation.”

So, what’s a development director to do when a strong corporate supporter steps forward to suggest a “win/win” partnership?

Look, before you leap. Very carefully, in most cases.

Assess the potential for new revenue from new sources. But, consider too, how current supporters will view the arrangement. Is this congruent with your mission? Consistent with past (and expected) practices? In good faith with the people you serve?

After all, the cause you save may be your own!