As we conducted interviews during the research phase of The Social Good Report: Profit & Purpose we heard companies say one thing over and over. “It’s no longer about being able to get our logo on t-shirts or event signage. Our team wants something more authentic.” Nonprofits also are ready for something more intentional and engaging. And while exchanging a check for a t-shirt logo might be a tired construct, we have good news – pairing nonprofit cause with corporate brand engagement is a more powerful partnership than ever.

Marketing has become much more content-driven in all ways and leveraging cause is no exception.  While general brand awareness remains important, brands and consumers are now seeking more authentic, aligned partnerships that target specific business needs. For savvy nonprofits and companies, there are real benefits to aligning creative marketing efforts. When done effectively, these partnerships can help businesses gain more customers, generate funding for nonprofits and directly benefit work in the community.

It’s a different way of thinking – how can nonprofits and corporate marketing professionals make sure they are embarking on a partnership that will lead to success for everyone involved? There is no magic formula for success, but here are three things that the most successful partnerships often have in common:

  1. They consider the audience. 
    The ‘old’ way of doing things assumed that ‘more is more.’ More eyeballs on banners and t-shirts printed meant that the brand partnership was effective. But many of the effective brand partnerships we interviewed took the time to seek out nonprofits whose audiences closely aligned with their own – even if those audiences were much smaller in comparison.

Consider the long-standing Giordana Sporting Goods partnership with the 24 Foundation. The company notes that their cycling gear appeals to a niche audience and is often expensive. As company VP Giordana Andretta noted in the Profit & Purpose Report, “Our product has value – it’s high end. If an organization appreciates that, then it’s the right fit. We want to make sure that we are getting to a customer base that is aligned with our own needs as well.”

2. They lead with relationship. 

Several corporate interviewees noted that a nonprofit coming in with a pre-defined sponsorship grid is now a turn-off. Almost every business leader we spoke to pointed to relationship as the most important part of any nonprofit partnership. When Blair Primis, Senior VP of Marketing & Talent at OrthoCarolina met John Searby, Executive Director of Catawba Riverkeeper, they knew they wanted to work together – but they initially struggled to find an idea that served both of their needs.

It was months of relationship, along with some out of the box thinking that helped the pair realize that kayakers, a large part of Catawba Riverkeeper’s constituency, often suffer from rotator cuff problems. This opened the door for an innovative partnership that was brand aligned and created wins for both parties. It’s time for both parties to put away those pitch decks and instead have a conversation over coffee – it might lead to some surprising results.

3. They look for authentic alignment.

Consumers are savvier than ever to the ways brands show up in nonprofit spaces and do not want to feel manipulated. Forced partnerships can cause more backlash than value. Consider some of the national mis-aligned causes recently – Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad that attempted to capitalize on the Black Lives Matter movement, or any number of ‘rainbow-washing’ campaigns that we referenced a few weeks ago.

Partnerships that get this right take the time to consider what value the brand and nonprofit bring to consumers. And while these types of partnerships take longer to form, authentically aligning with both customer and community need often builds the most long-lasting relationships.

Are you considering how your own business can leverage social impact in your brand and marketing efforts?

Next Stage knows you have questions and we’re here to help. Through our Social Impact for Business service line, we are working with companies to design compelling social good strategies. Got a specific challenge you’re wrestling with? Or a compelling workplace asset you want more people to know about? “Yes, we have a nonprofit for that.”

Reach out to us to learn more:

Written by Janet Ervin