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Cupcakes That Change the World

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There's a pin tacked to my bulletin board that says "Make Cupcakes, Not War," bought from Johnny Cupcakes, the indie clothing brand. It's a cute spin on the "Make Love, Not War" buttons of 1960s American counterculture, but it's not a complete joke. From what I've seen, cupcakes really can change the world.

Of course, calling cupcakes agents of change isn't meant to sugarcoat the harsh realities of our world. I know that 562,340 Americans are expected to die of cancer this year, more than 132 million children in the world are classified as orphans, and around 33.4 million people live with HIV/AIDS. Surely cupcakes are no substitute for lobbying government officials, traveling abroad to help suffering people, securing valuable grants, or discovering new life-saving drugs. But my nonprofit leadership style is focused on marketing good causes to mainstream audiences, and my fundraising model is to collect small contributions from large groups of people. Cupcakes, I've noticed, do the trick every time.

For example, this month, my friends at the Anita Kaufmann Foundation will launch The Great Purple Cupcake Project for epilepsy awareness. In September, CancerCare promotes Cupcakes for a Cause Week in bakeries and on to fundraise for cancer support services for children. And at every fundraiser I've planned with the MacDella Cooper Foundation, for which I'm Director of Operations, we serve donated mini cupcakes at the open bar, making our guests happy and, in turn, hopefully increasing their generosity at the nearby silent auction tables.

Nicholas Kristof, the globe-trotting New York Times columnist, once wrote in Outside magazine, "Like Pepsi, humanitarian causes need savvy marketing. Indeed, they need it far more than a soft-drink company." For your cause, cupcakes are a savvy marketing tool. Here's why:

  1. Cupcakes are fun and visually appealing.

    "Cupcakes are a quintessential, nostalgic childhood treat," said Christina Wyman, Director of Corporate Relations for CancerCare. "They have great eye-appeal." So, six years ago, CancerCare asked New York City bakeries to support Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September by baking special cupcakes and donating proceeds from their sale to the cause. Today, CancerCare works with more than 365 bakeries on the campaign, which raised $100,000 last year.

    Debra Josephs similarly gathered 60 bakeries nationwide (including the famous Magnolia) for a sale that she calls The Great Purple Cupcake Project for the Anita Kaufmann Foundation. Lavender is the symbolic color of epilepsy, a disorder affecting more than 50 million people worldwide, so purple-frosted cupcakes made by participants during the week of March 26 will bring awareness and raise money for education programs on epilepsy/seizures. "If you want to educate [people] about a very serious condition, you have to do it in a fun way," she said.

  2. They're low-budget.

    It doesn't cost much to whip up a big batch of cupcakes for a bake sale, giving you a high net profit to invest in the cause. Or, if you're hosting a fancy fundraiser and you want to offer guests who buy cheaper non-dinner tickets something to munch on at the three-hour open bar, donated cupcakes are easy to secure from a bakery. Passed hors d'oeuvres are expensive, and even if you get them donated, your venue might not allow you to serve them. Cupcakes, however, are noncompetitive to the bar, and bakers welcome the PR opportunity.

    Carrie Spindler, who owns Goodie Box Bake Shop in Weehawken, NJ, donated 200 mini cupcakes to my MacDella Cooper Foundation Fashion Week Finale Party fundraiser in February. "This is a great way to introduce your product to people through a positive, unobtrusive medium," she said, adding that the labor and material costs are minimal.

  3. They enable grassroots participation.

    Cupcakes are made commercially at gourmet bakeries and supermarkets, but people can just as easily bake them at home and host their own sales. Both CancerCare and the Anita Kaufmann Foundation have easy, step-by-step instructions for organizing benefit bake sales. Plus, they provide branded signage and flyers so local sales speak clearly to the message of the national campaign.

    Last year, cupcakes even went viral. In September on, if you decorated a virtual cupcake and emailed it to someone, a corporate sponsor (Reynolds) donated $1 to CancerCare. When I tweeted about that, I was retweeted four or five times, a higher rate than most of the links I share. Even when I tweeted that I was writing this post about cupcakes, I immediately got two enthusiastic replies. Cupcakes are so irresistible, and bake sales are so turn-key, that participation spreads through communities and cyberspace with ease.

You heard it here first, from the same girl who said she believes in the power of prom dresses: cupcakes change the world. Johnny Cupcakes, how about making that a T-shirt slogan? We could donate part of the proceeds to a good cause...

*Mark your calendars now for the week of March 26th! Learn more about the Anita Kaufmann Foundation's Great Purple Cupcake Project here.*