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James V. Toscano

About James

Bad Planning, Misuse of Mission, Contradictions of Cause Marketing?

Certain specific demographic cohorts flock to the annual swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated each year, presumably to experience nature and the environment up close.

Some of our friends at Nature Conservancy were intrigued with the demographics of these readers, clearly holding the prospect of adding to NC constituency and donors, so they entered into a three-pronged sponsorship of this year’s swimsuit edition with the magazine and a high-end luxury website.

sportsUnfortunately, the deal blew up in their faces and the NC president had to express regrets to one and all, including angry board members, women feeling demeaned and, presumably, the 16 models in the issue.

Is this an instance of bad planning, misunderstanding of mission, or one of the inherent contradictions of cause marketing?

Clearly, it was bad, incomplete planning, with marketing staff focused too narrowly and without proper organization-wide clearance for such a departure. Its presumed coup just bombed.

Obviously, mission was obscured by market—the prospect of getting those virile voyeurs of nature to join the ranks of those devoted to preserving it.

However, it is the inherent contradiction of mixing a nonprofit’s mission with cause marketing that can go very wrong very quickly if all of the motives and their implications of both parties are not carefully vetted.

Look at the misalliance between the hapless Susan Komen group and Kentucky Fried Chicken. What would ever possess that cancer-cure group to agree to allow sponsorship by a deep-fried food company?

How many more strange combinations can we add to these misadventures?

Partnerships that Work

However, we can also point to combinations that seem to work and work in win-win ways. Target always comes to mind when win-win cause marketing is discussed. Historically, American Express built business and helped the arts. There are numerous other examples we can cite.

So what criteria should we use in determining whether to enter into some type of cause marketing arrangement? Does the company have to be socially responsible, with products that are life-enhancing and related to the mission of the nonprofit?

Or does the relationship just have to have mutually compatible missions? Is this ever possible if the mission of a company, beyond its slogans and logos, is to make money responsibly for its shareholders? Might that include building business by enhancing the mission and resources of a nonprofit partner?

Three Tests

If we are to really answer the question, we need three tests. Clearly, the first is the smell test, which Nature Conservancy and Komen would not pass. Second is the ethical question: What claims are being made by both sides and are they ethically sound? Are they true?

Finally, do they work in the way anticipated? Does the for-profit reach its projected business goals so that it can justify expenditures of resources on the project? Or is it a charitable thing that it is really doing, and picking up some business on the side? If that is the case, there are much better ways of accomplishing that alternate goal. No, there really needs to be a formal analysis of the books to determine success.

And for the nonprofit? If it passes the smell test, and the ethics are pure, what does the relationship, in fact, add to the nonprofit’s standing, constituency, donors and bottom line? What does it upset? What are the costs as well as the benefits? Was it worth doing?

The answer to the three tests for both groups may help provide an answer to many a dilemma and keep our friends at NC from straying off once again.


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