THE BLOG

A New Cause Business Is Banking on Consumer Interest

08/08/2012 02:36 pm ET | Updated Oct 08, 2012

The Beatles were right: money can't buy you love. But it can buy us a better world, which might explain why consumers are setting aside their own interests in favor of products and services that put others first.

There are shoes from TOMS, donation-only cafes from Panera and even chewing gum from Project 7. The new banking leader of cause businesses is Boston-based ableBanking.

The brainchild of several executives from the Massachusetts banking industry, ableBanking is for depositors who care as much about making a difference as they do earning a good interest rate on their savings.

ableBanking's savings program is the first of its kind.

Interest rates for savings and CD's at ableBanking are higher than traditional banks and rival other online savings programs at Ally and ING. But after customers set up an account with ableBanking they get a free $25 to give to a nonprofit, plus an additional $2.50 annually on every $1,000 they keep on-account.

The potential for donors and nonprofits is huge, as ableBanking is proposing to give away 10 to 12 times more than what the average bank currently gives to causes. And unlike traditional banks, ableBanking isn't charging its customers additional fees or spending millions on advertising.

"We are taking the most of our marketing dollars and putting them back into the community," said Heather Campion, Chief Administrative Officer of the new bank.

The cause is the marketing, and ableBanking is letting customers choose which cause they want to support. This is also a departure from the practices of traditional banks that generally hand out the donations to the pet causes of top executives and big clients.

"Customers know their communities best," Campion added. "We believe they should be able to choose where they want to make a difference, and we're giving them the dollars to do that."

A good works bank such as ableBanking is a logical addition to the roster of socially responsible businesses. But will interest remain high? While TOMS has captured the imagination of do-gooders everywhere, it may be the exception. Cause businesses often lose traction as interest dips and consumers refocus on the almighty dollar.

Causeon tried to be the Groupon of causes but failed. CauseWorld was the Foursquare of cause-related location services but didn't check-in with users. Even high-profile cause businesses such as Edun, which was founded by U2's Bono and wife Ali Hewson, faltered when shoppers balked on helping Africans when the clothes didn't meet expectations.

"We focused too much on the mission in the beginning," Hewson told the Wall Street Journal in 2010. "It's the clothes, it's the product. It's a fashion company. That needs to be first and foremost."

It's a sentiment shared by others. John Craven of BevNET, a recognized authority on the beverage industry, commenting on the slew of beverage products that now lead with a cause-related message, believes companies may be putting the cause before the horse. "The best way to help a cause is to be a great business first," Craven said. "It's not a difficult concept to grasp, but many companies are hoping to buck conventional wisdom," he added.

But conventional wisdom has never been the spark for any revolution in business. As Henry Ford once explained, "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse." Cause businesses such as ableBanking are charting a new course.