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How Brands and Nonprofits Can Work Together on a Cause

How Brands and Nonprofits Can Work Together on a Cause

Hal Conick

For brands and nonprofits to successfully run a cause campaign, they’ll need to do more than just donate money. Here are five ways to think about cause marketing that can help brands and nonprofits work together on a campaign that can make a difference.

Consumers want brands that support great causes and nonprofits want access to the vast budgets of brands. Cause marketing can create partnerships where everyone benefits.

Brands that support a cause can see powerful results. In January, Gillette released an ad rallying against “toxic masculinity”—namely bullying and sexual harassment—that drew both praise and calls for boycott. Whether consumers loved or hated Gillette’s ad, it drew 65.4 million views on digital platforms within the first two weeks. Procter & Gamble Vice Chairman-CFO Jon Moeller told investors that Gillette has been “pleased with the level of consumption;” large viewing numbers seemed to translate to sales.

But was Gillette’s ad truly cause marketing—an attempt to use its brand to bring attention and change to a social issue—or was it simply a public relations gimmick? The ad certainly had potential to help a cause beyond a donation, says Cody Damon, co-founder of social impact and nonprofit marketing agency Media Cause, but Gillette didn’t give viewers a next action. Instead, the ad sent people to a landing page that featured an application for nonprofits to receive a $1 million donation from Gillette. The Boys and Girls Clubs of America will be the first nonprofit to receive the donation.

“It’s a great message that was pulled off and executed well—it created a conversation,” Damon says. “But when we get to that landing page that Gillette was sending people to from the ad, there’s not a lot to do. That’s where organizations that are more focused on community and keeping folks engaged do a better job.”


This, Damon says, is where a greater focus on what comes next for consumers in Gillette’s cause marketing campaign could have continued the conversation by creating a next action.

When brands pair with causes or nonprofits, the effects can be tremendous—just think about Gap’s (Red) campaign, which has raised more than $10 million for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, or Patagonia Clothing suing the federal government in defense of two Utah national monuments. These campaigns were certainly cause marketing, but they didn’t seem forced and both drove toward change by making consumers care. For brands that care about an issue, cause marketing can attract loyal customers, drive sales and make a difference in society.

Consumers want more brands that care, according to Edelman’s 2018 Earned Brand study, which found that 64% of consumers will choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues. Brands have taken note and spent more on cause marketing: The IEG Sponsorship Report says that spending on cause sponsorship will reach $2.23 billion in 2019, up 4.6% from 2018.

For brands and nonprofits to successfully run a cause campaign, they’ll need to do more than just donate money. Here are five ways to think about cause marketing that can help brands and nonprofits work together on a campaign that can make a difference. 

Change, Not Just PR

Brands often fall short of taking the next step. Joe Waters, a cause marketing consultant and author of the Selfish Giving blog, says that the Gillette ad is a good example of the challenges brands face in cause marketing. Gillette committed to donating $3 million to causes, but it’s a $6 billion company; is their intention to initiate change or is it simply good PR?

Gillette hasn’t taken a next step toward working with a nonprofit with its toxic masculinity campaign, save for its promised donations to three nonprofits over the next three years. Nike faces the same issue with its Colin Kaepernick campaign; Kaepernick framed his in-game protests as criticisms of police brutality in the U.S., but Nike hasn’t partnered with any nonprofits addressing this issue, save for a quiet donation to Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights charity, as reported by The Associated Press. In donating instead of pushing for an actionable step for consumers, Damon says that both companies are losing an opportunity to activate people who were moved by the messaging.

“The challenge for them then becomes are they going to stick with it?” Damon says. “Does this end now because they had a good campaign that got a lot of attention? Or do they come back and say, ‘Not only are we putting financial resources behind this, we’re making this a part of who we are?’”

Brands Must Find a Genuine Cause

Waters often asks his clients, “What do you really care about?” If a company doesn’t truly care about a cause it’s investing in, he says that the campaign won’t get traction.

Some companies try to find what their customers care about and use that issue as their cause, Waters says, but he believes that the cause needs to come from within the company. This could mean a cause the CEO and C-suite greatly support, or it could be doing what GameStop did: surveying employees to find out what they care about, then backing that cause.

“They have a great relationship with Autism Speaks,” Waters says. “What was great about that is employees who have autistic family members stepped up and became ambassadors for the program nationwide. That really encouraged the rank and file to get involved.”

Don’t bother getting involved with a cause you don’t care about, Damon says. Customers are smart enough to figure out when a company doesn’t truly care about the cause it’s pushing. But they also notice when corporations aren’t doing anything. “Consumers want to hold you accountable and we want you to have a stand on something,” Damon says.

NPOs and Brands Must Find a Common Cause

Nonprofits don’t have the same resources as brands, nor do they know who to reach out to at a brand for a collaborative campaign. Waters says that NPOs need to know what they’re looking for in a partner.

“What ends up happening is the nonprofit will take whatever they can get,” Damon says. “They just want the opportunity to partner with the big brand, particularly because they believe that that’s the solution; if we could just get in front of more people, it’d help what we’re trying to do. But if they were better aligned with what they were both trying to do, they could be better matched.”

For nonprofits, a good partnership often means more money and bigger marketing channels from the brands they’re working with.

“Corporations are influencers,” Waters says. “They have a solid, engaged audience behind them. And by aligning that audience with the cause, it can really elevate what the nonprofit does.”

Brands must look for nonprofits that already have an audience, Waters says. Brands now see cause marketing partnerships as new marketing channels. If brands can have a great strategy while also winning over a new audience through partnering with an effective nonprofit, the campaign will be well-aligned and likely set up a big marketing win. 

One example Waters gave was the involvement of veteran service organization Team Rubicon with the MLB during the World Series. Team Rubicon is a small organization; by partnering with the MLB during its biggest moment of the year—there were 14.3 million viewers during the 2018 World Series—it was able to raise more money and awareness. This partnership worked well, Waters says, because Team Rubicon has a growing reputation and already does a good job marketing itself, but it also worked because troops are a loyal audience for brands.

“Veterans really turn out to the brands,” Waters says, “They say, ‘I’m going to support that brand because they support me.’”

Keep Standards High

Through each cause marketing partnership, brands and nonprofits must hold their partners and themselves to high standards. Care for their cause must be integrated throughout the company.

Waters mentions that Gillette still charges more money for women’s razors than men’s razors, even after their campaign asked men to do better by women in society. Waters also says that brands’ words ring hollow when they get involved in cause marketing without addressing their own issues.

“When people get into cause marketing, one thing that they have to realize is there’s going to be accountability from consumers on a lot of different levels,” Waters says. “You can’t just institute one program. You have to say, ‘We’re going to look at our supply chain and see how we can become more sustainable. We’re going to see whether we’re paying employees a fair wage.’”

Damon says that cause marketing is a moving target, something that companies will have to measure like any other marketing campaign. Brands can’t just hope for the best—they must listen to consumers and change when necessary.

Find Inspiration

Brands can also look to the examples of organizations who have been successful with cause marketing. Patagonia is the pack leader, donating its $10 million tax return to causes. Patagonia also ran the “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign, where it tried to raise awareness of the effects of consumerism on the environment and offered to repair or recycle old jackets rather than sell new ones.

“They’re the ideal,” Waters says. “No company gets there overnight, but companies have to know that this is part of a process. If we don’t see them evolving in that process, we’re going to recognize this is just spin and we’re not going to give you the credit you’re looking for.”

Hal Conick is a freelance writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @HalConick.