Fast Company

Why For-Profits Need Not-For-Profits

Why corporations shouldn't take the cause out of cause marketing

In Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs roam the island terrorizing the humans, who seek refuge in the main building -- a sanctuary with security that beasts surely aren't smart enough to breach, right? Wrong! The big moment of terror is when those dumb animals learn to turn the doorknobs. Uh-oh. Now the humans hiding in the kitchen are really screwed.

We're witnessing a Jurassic Park moment in the social-good space: Not-for-profits are screwed, and it's partly our own doing. For years, we -- the martyrs, the saints, the do-gooders -- have had the keys to that door to heaven. But then we shared them with corporate America, through a practice known as "cause marketing" since 1983, when American Express launched a campaign in partnership with the National Park Service for the Statue of Liberty restoration project.

You see these campaigns everywhere now. Companies buy goodwill by touting that "a percentage of the proceeds goes to ..." or slapping a charity's logo on packaging. Want to show moms that your company cares about children? Partner with the Make-A-Wish Foundation or St. Jude Children's Research Hospital -- moms love sick kids. Need marketing oomph with African-Americans? Call the United Negro College Fund or the National Urban League.

Both sides benefit: Not-for profits get brand recognition from being featured on that cereal box, and of course we ♥ the funds -- more than $1.5 billion per year -- which are usually "unrestricted," meaning we can spend the money on unsexy things like rent. Corporations improve their image and build internal pride. Cause marketing has been one big lovefest; we all reaped rewards -- and together did a lot of good.

But what if corporate America didn't need charitable America to show love? What would happen if they, the dinosaurs in our story, learned to turn that doorknob by themselves? In September, Macy's hosted "Shop for a Cause" in its stores. It bought full-page newspaper ads to promote the day "in support of nonprofit organizations." No mention of specific groups. The day's real draw? Simply the notion of shopping for a cause. Any cause. In fairness to Macy's, it did raise more than $9 million for deserving groups (whose names you can find on its Web site). But the cause-agnostic ads proved that organizations are easily written out of the cause-marketing story line.

Aleve has taken it even further. One TV ad for the painkiller shows a woman "on a three-day walk for charity." She is strong in her spandex, putting her body on the line for her cause -- and no specific cause is named. Another ad features a woman who volunteers at a homeless shelter. The medication helps her enjoy the physical work. Did Aleve give to a worthy group that helps the homeless? No idea, but it's the preferred pain medication of people who care!

Corporate America has realized it can bask in the glow of causiness without actually partnering with a cause. That could mean the end of a gravy train for not-for-profits and the beginning of competition with big, well-funded companies. (Read: We're all kinda annoyed and scared.)

But does that make good business? Charities lend more value than just their good names. Cause is our core competency. It's what we do. We might not know how to make lipstick or sell shoes, but what do those companies know about curing cancer? Plus, we're incentivized to make the campaign work, and have our own promotional armories -- which often include celebs!

Partnering with a dot-org is simply smart outsourcing. Because, besides eating humans, what else can dinosaurs really do in the kitchen?

Nancy Lublin founded Dress for Success and is CEO of the not-for-profit Do Something.

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13 Comments

  • cart man

    I really like the Jurassic PArk. This time, I really support this campaign. Benefit enormously. They do deserve it.
    PLC

  • Ryan Pemberton

    I realize this has been out a while at this point, but I wanted to let you know that I recently read this article and I thought your closing, in particular, was great:

    "Partnering with a dot-org is simply smart outsourcing. Because,
    besides eating humans, what else can dinosaurs really do in the
    kitchen?"

    Good stuff.

  • Warren Hunsberger

    Warren Hunsberger wrote: "As a non-profit director, I don't think a for-profit conducting a marketing campaign to "sell" their compassion is the answer to societal ills. I also don't want any part of laid-off for-profit employees who are willing to "settle" for a job in the not-for-profit sector. I'm looking for authentic causes (not smoke and mirrors designed to raise funds) that are manned by folks who sense a legitimate call to give their lives in service to others."

  • Warren Hunsberger

    As a non-profit director, I don't think a for-profit conducting a marketing campaign to "sell" their compassion is the answer to societal ills. I also dont't want any part of laid-off for-profit employees who are willing to "settle" for a job in the not-for-profit sector. I'm looking for authentic causes (not smoke and mirrors designed to raise funds) that are manned by folks who sense a legitimate call to give their lives in service to others.

  • Jim Moore

    Take heart. Cause marketing is not just for big business. We recently launched Cure Jewelry, an online retailer of jewelry, much of it handmade, where cause marketing is central to our company's success. We donate 10% of all sales revenue and 10% of after tax profits from our website http://www.curejewelry.com to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. We have no formal partnership. In fact, I'm sure they don't even know we exist yet. But if we do our job right, they'll surely know all about us this time next year!

  • Darin Phillips

    Barbara, your comment was headlined on my iGoogle Fast Company widget so I appreciate you bringing me to this article. However, your comment does not seem related to the content of the article. The title of this article is similarly off-topic, but the article itself is interesting. Perhaps the sub-title should be the title.

    Nancy, I think you make some great points. However, I don't see cause marketing as being abused by the two companies that you highlight. Macy's is supporting numerous charities with its sale. Which charities would you remove as beneficiaries so that only one or two could have their names plastered on the sales flyers and ads? Additionally, I don't see Aleve trying to deceive anyone. As you said, they want to be the pain reliever for people who care about causes. They also want to be the pain reliever of many other groups of people so those are not the only ads they are running.

    I think that the loss of not-for-profit co-branding is potentially a real issue, but as long as money is coming into the coffers at the agencies who are benefiting from the events then I will support them. I spent ten years as a counselor at a United Way Agency that served at-risk youth and now I have spent ten years in corporate America. I am for both sides to win, collaboratively. I think there is room for even more types of partnerships!

    By the way, the dinosaur metaphor was exceptionally well written,

    Darin

  • Ivars Ulinskis

    One must be a master or a great fool to determine the mysterious cause and substantial motivation in todays corporate system.

  • Steph Emerson

    I don't really think this article is even discussing the workplace at all! I don't think it's "snarky" either. Simply put, it questions the actual goodwill of corporations and their involvement with non-profits. Your off-topic comment annoys me.

  • Barbara Cassidy

    Having worked at senior levels in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors (and happily back at a for-profit tech), I take issue with Nancy Lublin’s snarky article. It has been my observation that 'the cream floats to the top' in the workplace, and the best people invariably end up where the best financial remuneration or security and prestige are offered--whether that's a good thing or not--and that means the private companies or academia.

    Rather than disparage those hapless, laid-off MBAs of the private sector looking into working for a non-profit, Ms. Lublin and her like should welcome them, even if it's only while the economy is stalled. Think what they could achieve with just one year's tenure!

    And, as demonstrated by your own print advertising from organiziations such as Encore Careers, there will be plenty of superstar baby boomers willing to work their last ten years for a social cause. It would be a shame to turn them away based on some pervese snobbery.

  • Barbara Cassidy

    Having worked at senior levels in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors (and happily back at a for-profit tech), I take issue with Nancy Lublin’s snarky article. It has been my observation that 'the cream floats to the top' in the workplace, and the best people invariably end up where the best financial remuneration or security and prestige are offered--whether that's a good thing or not--and that means the private companies or academia.

    Rather than disparage those hapless, laid-off MBAs of the private sector looking into working for a non-profit, Ms. Lublin and her like should welcome them, even if it's only while the economy is stalled. Think what they could achieve with just one year's tenure!

    And, as demonstrated by your own print advertising from organiziations such as Encore Careers, there will be plenty of superstar baby boomers willing to work their last ten years for a social cause. It would be a shame to turn them away based on some pervese snobbery.

  • Barbara Cassidy

    Having worked at senior levels in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors (and happily back at a for-profit tech), I take issue with Nancy Lublin’s snarky article. It has been my observation that 'the cream floats to the top' in the workplace, and the best people invariably end up where the best financial remuneration or security and prestige are offered--whether that's a good thing or not--and that means the private companies or academia.

    Rather than disparage those hapless, laid-off MBAs of the private sector looking into working for a non-profit, Ms. Lublin and her like should welcome them, even if it's only while the economy is stalled. Think what they could achieve with just one year's tenure!

    And, as demonstrated by your own print advertising from organiziations such as Encore Careers, there will be plenty of superstar baby boomers willing to work their last ten years for a social cause. It would be a shame to turn them away based on some pervese snobbery.