Cause Blog

How to choose a nonprofit partner, Part 1: Choosing a cause.

By Ed Lord


This five-part series of articles is written for corporations seeking to increase their cause footprint and their impact by finding the right nonprofit organization to partner with. Over the next few posts I’ll cover: 

  • Choosing a cause. How to pick your cause and why aligning with a cause first is best for business.
  • Choosing a nonprofit. How to find the right organization so together you can have a bigger impact on the cause.
  • Making them evaluate you. Why the nonprofit needs to vet you for the partnership as much as you need to vet them and how they should go about the process.
  • Best Practices with your new partner. A how-to guide for building a productive relationship.
  • A few tips for making partner choice and the relationship that follows go as smoothly as possible.

Part 1: Choosing a cause.

There was a time when the cause for your Cause Marketing program was picked because it was your CEO’s or other executive's favorite charity. But today, the choice of the cause that your company aligns with is just as vital as any other business decision you make. Furthermore, the choice of a nonprofit partner because they’re just “doing good” is just not good enough.

The difference between cause and organization.

Though the word “cause” is commonly used for the organization you align with, let’s look at a cause in a more general way, taking it back to its true meaning. A cause is a devotion to improving a social issue. It’s helping kids in the hospital get well, preventing suicide or bringing clean water to the Third World. Organizations like Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and World Vision are the vehicles that can help you initiate that change. Cause and the organization that affects that cause are different concepts, but they’re tightly related. As a company you need to choose a cause or issue where you want to make a difference and you want to choose an organization that will help you achieve that change.

How’s your fit?

Fit has become supremely important in Cause Marketing today. A poor fit with your cause and your nonprofit partner can mean lackluster Cause Marketing results or even a negative impression. Though you may already have some great nonprofit candidates for your company to support, it’s important to step back and look at the cause first. 

What to ask when evaluating a cause to support:

  • Would there be a business benefit to supporting this cause? 
  • How do your business and the cause touch?
  • Does the cause resonate with your stakeholders?
  • Would you benefit from aligning with a popular cause?

Would there be a business benefit to supporting this cause?

This is the most basic question you should ask yourself. While we would all like to think our company is "doing good" just for the sake of doing good, there’s an expectation that supporting a cause will reflect well on your brand and ultimately benefit your company. The days when supporting the CEO’s favorite charity because it benefited the CEO personally are gone. You support the cause for the sake of the company, as well as the brand.

How do your business and the cause touch?

Kroger grocery’s Round Up program encourages customers to round up their grocery bill to the next $10 with the difference going to feed the needy. Feeding people is Kroger’s core business and it’s become their cause as well. When your business and your cause align this closely, you’ll find it easier to deliver on the mission. With donations of lenses and frames from their business partners, they’ve used their industry connections to have a bigger impact on their cause.

Does the cause resonate with your stakeholders? 

The cause needs to matter to your customers and other stakeholders as well as to you. This is where the CEO’s favorite cause often failed. For instance, funding scholarships for poor children to go to an upscale summer camp that the CEO’s children go to may be a cause that very few stakeholders would find worthy. If your customer or employee doesn’t buy into the cause, you can’t expect your Cause Marketing to have much effect.

Dick’s Sporting Goods received a Gold Halo Award at the 2015 Cause Marketing Forum Conference for their Sports Matter campaign.  This focuses on developing community sports programs for kids and includes peer-to-peer fundraising software for stakeholders, including their customers. While the cause doesn’t have as broad an appeal as helping children in the hospital, it definitely resonates with Dick’s customer base. 

Would you benefit from aligning with a popular cause?

As seen above, a tightly-aligned cause can be of big benefit to a company. But companies with a diverse customer base often chose a cause that also has a wide appeal. Walmart, Ace Hardware, Costco, Dairy Queen, Delta Air Lines, Marriott and Rite Aid all partner with Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Everyone has a place in their heart for sick kids and 1 in 10 children are treated in a CMN Hospital each year. So not only does this cause touch the customer’s heart, it probably has directly touched the life of someone they know. When a company has a broad customers base, a cause like this tends to be a safe bet, since it's not at all controversial. 

While cause and nonprofit are linked, choosing a cause first can free you from the emotions that certain executives in your company can have toward deserving organizations they already have an affinity for. After all, this is a business decision first and foremost. When you look at the bigger picture of the cause or the issue first, it’s easier to build a consensus on which one to support. Ultimately this will lead you to a decision that’s better for your business. 

In our next article, I’ll go over the questions you should ask when choosing the right nonprofit organization to align with.