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Cause Marketing: Taking a Cue From the Private Sector

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Are you working for a nonprofit or promoting a social cause? Many of the for-profit rules about marketing strategy apply there, too.

Recently, I did some consulting work for a high-profile nonprofit client in Silicon Valley. A casualty of the times, the organization has suffered extreme cutbacks in funding. Because of this, the CEO felt that strategic planning and marketing development were not priorities.

This attitude is ultimately dangerous. During these tough economic times, nonprofits are under the gun to craft and articulate a strategic vision. If you cannot convey your mission and successes, be assured: some organization competing for the same funds will.

Are you evolving your market strategy with these changing times? If not, be prepared to lose your raison d'être and your funding.

Here are some important things to remember about cause-related marketing strategy:


  • Market your mission, not your services. Services may come and go, but it is your charter that you need to “sell.” You must champion your mission; programs that do not fit or advance the mission are ultimately distracting from your focus.

    Sometimes an organization needs to reinvent itself. Is the reason behind the mission no longer relevant? If the answer is yes, you may have already missed a strategic window. It is important to anticipate environmental changes that alter the viability of your mission and to adjust accordingly. Strategic planning is a must.

    Remember, these are tough times for cause marketers. To survive, many will have to consolidate as well as trim programs. Now is the time to leverage synergies, and the longevity of your mission may well depend on an organizational merger.

  • Communicate your ROI or successes consistently and regularly. Your constituents do not always know your successes. It is your job to communicate them. Though your ROI may not be in monetary terms, you need to communicate and quantify the “economic good” delivered to the market: how many people received care, how many entities, families, etc. benefited from your services, etc.? Treat your constituents as shareholders. You are accountable to them in the same way a for-profit enterprise must exhibit transparency to its shareholders. Waiting until fundraising time to communicate your efforts may be too late.

    Additionally, like for-profit companies, nonprofits often have multiple target markets (constituent bases) with different needs. Your positioning to these audiences must appeal to THEIR needs, not yours. How does your mission affect them?

  • Articulate your vision and strategy for the future. If stakeholders do not know where you're headed, they won't help you get there financially. The elevator speech of 30 seconds or less applies to public-sector entities as well.

  • Can you explain your firm's value-add, ROI or mission in less than one minute? Is it clearly understood? If you cannot articulate your value proposition, your competitors will, and they are competing for the same tight funding you are.

  • Know your strengths and communicate them. SWOT analyses do not just apply to for-profit enterprises. If you aren't sure, you need to conduct an organizational assessment and some basic market research by talking to constituents.

  • Diversify your funding sources. Many nonprofits over-rely on government or foundation grants and ignore the private sector, at their own risk. My client relied on a single large grant provider for about 40% of its budget. When that was pulled, the company was sent reeling. Private-sector funding is often more stable and easier to obtain based on specific projects. But be prepared: business people are demanding shareholders, and you will have to speak to them in ROI terms.

  • Market your mission close to donors' hearts. Cause marketing is about social issues. The way to reach corporate constituents is to promote your issues as important to the organization, its employees and its community. Show how your cause affects the company, and you will grab attention—and, ultimately, dollars.

  • Evaluate your programs for synergy and focus. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If you cannot leverage programs to add value to other initiatives, then your programs lack a multiplier effect that comes with synergy. If each program requires reinventing the wheel for marketing, think about how you might effectively modify your approach to the program so that it can be leveraged.

  • If your constituents believe you are tackling too many things, then you are. Perception is the only reality that matters. If you lack focus, you will have a difficult time convincing companies to part with precious dollars. Just as with lack of synergy, lack of focus is a waste of resources that dilutes the potency of your strategy. Ask yourself how the program fits in and enhances your mission. Are you spending your finite resources efficiently? Programs that do not add value by adding synergy and leverage take precious resources from those that do.

  • Interview your constituents and often. If your constituents are unclear about your goals, you need to re-examine your objectives and how you are communicating them. Market research need not be expensive to be reliable. Ask your constituents for improvements, in the form of an informal focus group. Ask them about your strengths and weaknesses and who they believe your competition is.

The idea that nonprofits can eschew strategic planning is not only erroneous, it is risky. If you think you cannot afford to worry about it, remember: you cannot afford not to. Enterprises that follow these guidelines will more effectively safeguard their future social and financial viability.


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Kathy Klotz-Guest, founder of Keeping It Human, helps companies turn marketing-speak into compelling human stories. A comic improviser and marketer, she also runs a marketing podcast. Reach her via kathy@keepingithuman.com.

LinkedIn: Kathy Klotz-Guest

Twitter: @kathyklotzguest

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