It seems hard to believe, but 10 years ago the mere mention of marketing elicited frowns from many people I met working in nonprofit organizations.
Many traditionalists acted as if marketing was dirty, a practice bordering on deception, a deviation from "pure" mission-driven work. (Direct mail fundraising was tolerated because it brought in so much money for so many groups and could be quite segregated from other activities.)
If you ranked nonprofit career prestige, cause marketing -- commercially collaborating with corporate partners to do well by doing good -- was low on the ladder of development activities. (Believe me I know this first hand, I started the Cause Marketing Forum in 2002.)
A decade of dramatic societal, technological and economic changes have moved many nonprofit leaders to elevate their opinion of marketing from a black art to a critical survival skill and to proactively seek out win-win corporate relationships.
Among the reasons why: As the greatest generation dies off, huge quantities of direct mail donations will disappear. Charities have come to realize they must develop new digital marketing skills to connect with younger consumers' absorbed in online communications, social media and mobile marketing. At most organizations, a prolonged recession has required leaner staffs to explore ways of crafting more effective marketing communications to engage supporters, spur advocacy and generate donations.
In terms of absolute dollars, corporate cause sponsorship (estimated at just a few billion dollars) is a small sliver of America's $290 billion+ giving pie. The value of corporate alliances is far more significant, however, when you factor in the impact of the billions of impressions it generates via earned media, advertising, events, on-pack messaging, social media and other forms of promotion. Add to that other resources like business volunteers -- from walkers in thon fundraising events to executives attacking mission-critical problems -- and you see why more and more nonprofits realize they need to have a solid corporate alliance development strategy.
Fortunately, there has also been significant expansion in the ranks of companies large and small that recognize their brands must communicate elements of purpose to succeed. They've seen the handwriting on the wall. An expanding body of market research (such as the recent global study by Cone) indicates: 1) people's expectations of corporate citizenship are at record highs and 2) consumers are rewarding or punishing companies based on perceptions of pro- or anti-social behavior.
I started Cause Marketing Forum with faith (and fingers crossed) that that there was a future in monitoring the intersection of commerce and cause. Ten years later, I continue to be amazed by the volume of new players entering the marketplace and the percentage of existing programs that have been maintained or expanded in spite of the grim economic situation.
I'd love to be able to say that all of these campaigns are world-class, authentic, transparent, brilliantly-executed programs, but cause marketing, like most other fields, exhibits a bell-shaped quality distribution -- some of it is fantastic, most of it is good with room for improvement and some of it is subpar.
Over the next month and a half, we'll be encouraging businesses and nonprofits to submit their best efforts for Cause Marketing Halo Awards. We'll share the winners in May. In the meantime, I encourage you to share your thoughts on campaigns that succeed in generating societal and business benefits -- and on those that don't.