Stanford Social Innovation Review – Making Nonprofit-Corporate Alliances Work

This article by Ripple Founders Shayna Samuels and Glenn Turner appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). Original link can be found here.

Corporate philanthropy is nothing new. Browse the websites of most Fortune 500 companies, and you’ll likely find a report of how their company has been giving back for decades. (Many even have their own charitable foundations.) Beyond this transactional relationship of making grants and donations, however, is something more meaningful that has become commonplace in the past few years: nonprofit-corporate alliances and cause-marketing campaigns. In these symbiotic, public-facing partnerships, the nonprofit and business essentially “hold hands”—they declare a shared mission and execute a marketing campaign around it. The end goal is increased awareness for both entities, along with increased sales for the business and increased funds for the nonprofit. Done right, both groups can reap huge, mutual rewards.

Done wrong, these partnerships can tarnish both the nonprofit and the business. One very recent example that’s gone viral is the Susan J. Komen-Baker Hughes “frack-for-the-cure” partnership. In support of Susan J. Komen’s efforts to raise awareness about breast cancer (and funds for research), Baker Hughes is painting 1,000 of their giant drill bits pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month as they launch 1,000 new fracking projects across the country; these projects, ironically and sadly, pollute the environment, drinking water, and workers with known carcinogens. Not surprisingly, this initiative is dropping jaws as perhaps one of the greatest cases of “pinkwashing” to date, and it begs a few obvious questions. What does fracking have to do with women’s health? Why is a company that creates carcinogens supporting breast cancer awareness? Who thought giant pink drill bits was the ideal visual for the campaign? The partnership doesn’t make sense, and the campaign execution is all-wrong.

For the past decade, our organization has been working on media and cause-marketing campaigns, harnessing media power to help change-makers create a bigger impact and leave a better legacy. And as we’ve watched the growing trend of cause-marketing partnerships, we’ve observed what works and what doesn’t. We recently released a report featuring case studies and tips for creating authentic, strategic media and marketing campaigns—a good primer for nonprofits, mission-driven businesses, and collaborations. Here are 7 takeaways:

Have clear, tangible short- and long-term goals. Dream big, but also establish some clear, attainable goals. If you’re partnering up with another entity, you should clearly have a shared mission. (If you have to struggle to legitimize the alliance, it’s probably not the right one.) Goals help keep you focused internally and effectively communicate your intentions. A great example is the The Home Depot and KaBOOM “1,000 Playgrounds in 1,000 Days” campaign.

Define your target audience. Who needs to take action? Try to be as specific as you can about each possible target so that you can best identify what they care about and craft messages that matter to them. A great example of this is the “Comeback Clothes” campaign from youth-focused and youth fashion retailer H&M, which teamed up with actress Olivia Wilde to get young people across the country excited about clothing recycling and sustainable fashion.

Find a “hook.” Why should people care about what you have to say or sell right now? Are there conversations already happening that relate to your campaign? Find context and timing to create relevance. In an attention-getting, 180-degree spin on the cultural conversation, Patagonia launched a “Buy Less” campaign on Black Friday 2011 telling customers not to buy their most popular jacket, in an effort to curb consumption and increase recycling and reuse. (On the contrary, sales skyrocketed in the following months and revenue increased roughly 30 percent.)

Establish your story. Never underestimate the power of a good story. The right story, told at the right time, by the right person, using the right technology, has the potential to quickly influence critical masses of people. As you consider your story, think who the best spokespeople will be. For example, Chipotle aligned with country singer Willie Nelson and music group Coldplay to create “Back to the Start,”—a compelling animated film short highlighting the issue of sustainable farming. It became an instant viral phenomenon, garnering 8.5 million views to date.

Get to know the new media landscape. Familiarize yourself with and take advantage of all of the print and digital communications tools at your fingertips. And make sure they’re the channels your target audience is using. Harnessing the combined power of social media, an email list of more 9 million, and paid digital advertising, Panera coordinated a “Food Chain Reaction” campaign in partnership with Feeding America, with a goal of donating 500,000 bowls of soup to those in need. By targeting where they already had loyal fans and requesting that fans invite friends to participate, the campaign successfully took advantage of word-of-mouth social media marketing to increase awareness about food insecurity in the United States.

Create a list of materials to develop. Infographics, videos, reports, articles, blog posts, tweets—the options are numerous these days. What are the best tools to inform and empower your audience? Do they translate to the media channels you’re targeting? Are they shareable? Tom’s of Maine thought outside the box by creating a coloring book called “Brushing Fun” that educates kids about natural oral hygiene while also supporting a good cause. With each free coloring book download, Tom’s donates 10 tubes of toothpaste to Oral Health America (OHA) in support of OHA’s Smiles Across America program.

Ignite conversations. With the advent of social media, all media has become dynamic. Your audience can now respond directly to your campaigns using commenting features on websites or even just posting their opinions using their own social media channels. Everything you do should aim to spark this digital dialogue, which leads to “real-life” discussions too. One day every year, the visionaries at Tom’s Shoes invite people to go without shoes to raise awareness about children’s health and education in developing countries. Armed with the facts, tools, and inspiration that Tom’s provides, people and organizations all over the globe participate in the day of action, sharing their personal messages, photos, and videos online with the hashtag #withoutshoes; this results in massive social media buzz that also attracts traditional media coverage.

These tactics and others we highlight in our new report are based on a powerful hybridization of traditional marketing with modern advocacy. It’s a sweet spot between marketing for profit and marketing for good that reaps the most success when a brand and a nonprofit clearly share a mission. Marketing may be an uncomfortable realm for nonprofits, and advocacy can be equally as uncomfortable for businesses, but if the alignment is right, the opportunities for mutually beneficial cause marketing campaigns are almost endless.