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Charitable Campaigns with High Dollar Goals Are Causes for Concern

Charitable Campaigns with High Dollar Goals Are Causes for Concern

Steve Heisler

flying angel holding gold coin

A new study in the Journal of Marketing Research warns that brands that set maximum dollar amounts for their cause marketing campaigns—versus minimum goals—can turn consumers away 

Cause marketing campaigns during the pandemic can exponentially increase consumers’ fondness for a brand. In June, the marketing and PR agency Zeno Group released its “Strength of Purpose Study,” which surveyed more than 8,000 consumers in eight countries and found that people were four times as likely to purchase from a brand if they perceived it promoted strong morals and ran cause marketing campaigns that aligned with those values. The same consumers said they were 4.5 times as likely to recommend that brand to family and friends, and six times as likely to support that brand during difficult times. 

Numerous cause marketing campaigns have run since the early days of the pandemic. The Microsoft video game “Halo 5” offered a $10 in-game purchase of rare items, with all proceeds donated to GlobalGiving’s Coronavirus Relief Fund. And shoe brand Altra donated 10% of net proceeds of Escalante 2 sneaker purchases from May 1-3 to COVID-19 relief efforts—which were then matched by parent company VF’s charitable arm. 

But how cause marketing campaigns are run, specifically how a brand presents the campaign’s ultimate financial goal, can make or break the effort. A new study from the University of Miami found that setting total donation goals too high, or presenting the target number in the wrong way, can hurt consumer perception more than not running the campaign at all. 


The paper, published in the Journal of Marketing Research, discovered that setting a reasonable and attainable minimum donation threshold for an entire cause marketing campaign encourages consumer giving—either through monetary donations or the purchase of products from which a percentage is donated to the cause—and reinforces the idea that consumer dollars have a sizable impact on the campaign’s success. Additionally, consumers viewed companies more favorably because they felt that money raised beyond the set minimum goal would not only be donated to the cause, but the extra funding would also then be matched by the company. 

Framing and promoting the campaign goal as a maximum donation amount—wording the ask as wanting to raise or match “up to” a particular amount—caused consumers to think of a company less favorably. The implication is that the campaign, and by proxy a company’s generosity, ends once the maximum is reached. 

“That can be demotivating for people, especially for people who are inherently interested in the particular cause,” says Michael Tsiros, chair of the marketing department at the Miami Herbert Business School and the study’s co-author. He explains that if brands set the goal too high, consumers will opt not to donate, assuming their contribution wouldn’t mean much in the long run. 

Tsiros’s advice is to adopt an incremental approach. Set an achievable minimum donation goal amount for the entire campaign, which can later be raised by demonstrating gratitude for the donations that have come in thus far. Ask consumers for enough money to cover something tangible, such as a meal for a hungry family or supplies for a school on a tight budget, so they feel they’re an active participant in the cause. And no matter how successful the cause marketing campaign, always express and reinforce gratitude to customers. 

Set Your Target

The financial scope of a cause marketing campaign is computed based on company size, annual budget, industry and level of consumer brand awareness. 

Those who have run previous cause marketing campaigns have the luxury of reviewing data and applying lessons learned to their current campaign. Newcomers to the cause marketing world can home in on an appropriate and achievable donation range by soliciting feedback from stakeholders. 

Caglar Irmak, associate professor of marketing at the Miami Herbert Business School and study co-author, recommends conducting a survey of approximately 100 customers to gauge how much they would be willing to donate and what factors might drive them to do so. Company executives should be consulted to determine how much the company would like to ultimately contribute based on donation matching, then reverse engineer a minimum total amount from there. 

Determining the length of the campaign goes a long way in setting minimums. “You can construct more reasonable high and low amounts by limiting or constraining the event,” Tsiros says. 

Amanda Lehner, senior strategist and co-owner of the cause marketing agency HelpGood, strongly recommends offering donation matching—which she calls “table stakes.” The gesture is no longer viewed as going above and beyond, she says. In the minds of consumers, it’s a given. 

Lehner further suggests erring on the side of lower minimums and shorter campaigns for brands undertaking their first cause marketing campaign. “There are supervisors, or people at the top, that’ll say a million [dollars] because they want you to work as if you’re trying to raise a million, knowing you will never get it,” she says. “That is a management tactic I am not a fan of. I like to set goals that are high, where everyone has to work super hard, of course, but you can reach it. … [The donors] need to feel like they’re contributing to you reaching the goal. It has to feel aspirational, but it has to also feel attainable.” 

Irmak offers another strategy: running a campaign that pulls a percentage of sales toward a cause—10% of every sale is donated to a nonprofit, for example. This tactic encourages participation because of how the donation is built into a purchase. 

Lehner says a big driver of donations is often when the ask comes from a friend or peer, rather than the company itself. “[Find] someone that is a huge influence, an ambassador, that has a network of people [to whom to] make the ask,” she says. 

Further encourage donors by asking for a specific amount of money rather than leaving dollar amounts open for the donor to choose. Younger generations, Lehner has found, appreciate a harder sell: Here’s why we need you, here’s where your money will go and here’s what we as a brand have done in the past. 

For example, Lehner ran a cause marketing campaign with Save the Children: A $50 donation bought a kit for a health worker to use in a developing nation on young patients. Donors knew exactly how their dollars were being put to use and understood that less than $50 wasn’t enough to make a meaningful impact. 

Extending the Campaign

Lower minimums are likely to be achieved quickly, and marketers can opt to extend the campaign with the appropriate announcement. But Irmak cautions that continuing the campaign with a new, higher goal, or running a repeat campaign with a higher minimum, can make consumers wonder why the goal wasn’t more ambitious in the first place. 

Lay the groundwork for the new campaign goal with an email to customers just before crossing the minimum donation threshold, particularly if the rate of donations starts to slow. Tsiros advises encouraging consumers by telling them how close the brand is to achieving the goal and let them know their contributions continue to be important. “People get motivated; they want to take you through and complete it,” he says. “You have to show that there is support, progress and the goal is reachable.” He explains that sending the communication too early can make people feel disinterested or unmotivated to give again. 

One of the best incentives for giving is to increase the matching percentage. Lehner once ran a cause marketing campaign that benefitted the New York Public Library, during which they captured attention and increased urgency by offering triple matching by the donating brands within a particular time frame. 

Cause marketing initiatives can take multiple campaigns to stick in the minds of consumers. “For someone to open their wallet,” Lehner says, “it takes years of telling them your story and showing them your impact.” 

Steve Heisler served as staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at