How Any Nonprofit Can Find a Cause Marketing Business Partner

Find the Perfect Business Partner For Your Cause Marketing Promotion

A woman being introduced by one man to another in a business setting.
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Nonprofits often ask me what kind of company they should target for a cause-marketing campaign. "Oh, that's easy," I say. "Pick the business that will say yes!"

Some people think I'm being a smart-aleck, but I'm really not. Finding a partner is the most difficult part of any cause-marketing program.

If you already have a partner, and are just looking for the right promotion, you should count yourself lucky. Everything is easier and more possible when you have a partner. Sadly, few nonprofits have one when they call me. They have plenty of creative ideas, but when I ask about a partner to help execute their plans I hear crickets.

So, if you're not fortunate to already have a company partner, how do you find one for your cause-marketing program?

To begin, think of your prospecting efforts as a target with a bull's-eye and two outer circles.

The Bull's-Eye - Supporters

The bull's-eye is your sweet spot where you should be aiming. The companies within the bull's-eye are existing supporters of your organization.

These companies already give you money in some way. The CEO may be a major donor, or the company might be a sponsor or underwriter of a program or event. Either way, this company is a friend, supporter, and ally with whom you can start a cause-marketing partnership.

Companies that are supporters already like you. They may be open to experimenting and taking risks because they know and trust you. This is important, especially if this is your first cause-marketing program. First tries are rarely perfect, and these partners will have the patience and forgiveness you need to safely try, and try again.

The Inner Circle - Contacts

Populate the first outer circle with what I call contacts. You know these people and they know you, but they're not supporters the way the companies within the bull's-eye are. In short, they haven't given you any money. But they are familiar with your organization and are excellent secondary prospects.

Examples of useful contacts are your organization's vendors. If you work at a large nonprofit you probably spend a lot of money with several vendors that can either join you in a cause-marketing program or introduce you to a company that can.

Another example of contacts are the companies your board members know and can introduce you to. I once landed a meeting with a major convenience store chain in my hometown of Boston because when I mentioned their name to a board member she replied, "I live next door to the president of the company!"

It's best to work from the inside out. Begin with companies within the bull's-eye, execute a program or two, and then shop your successes to the next circle of prospects that will need more convincing and require more of a track record than your generous supporters did.

The Outer Circle - Suspects

The companies in the outer circle aren't even prospects. I call them suspects, that's how weak their connection is to you.

These companies have no connection with your organization. Heck, they may not have heard of you, or you them! This is the hardest circle to work, but it also has the most opportunity because let's face it: there are only so many companies we can call supporters and contacts. If selling was as easy as pitching supporters and contacts, we wouldn't need sales people and fundraisers!

Remember, just as the second circle is harder to work than the bull's-eye, the outer circle is harder than both of them! Work the bull's-eye and inner circle first, as you'll gain valuable experience and references. You'll need them when you work the companies in the outer circle.

Taking Aim at a Real Target

Let me explain how this circle strategy worked for me when I was running a cause-marketing program for a Boston hospital. 

When I first started in my position, we enjoyed the support from a wonderful company - a Boston-based party supply chain with 50 area stores. The owners of the business were hospital supporters and happily agreed to launch our very first cause-marketing program. This company was right in our bull's-eye and it showed when we raised $40,000 in less than a month.

After gaining some valuable experience and credibility with a bull's-eye partner, we identified a contact - an office supply company and hospital vendor. We didn't recruit the partner because they were a business partner. But their business relationship with our organization did get us a meeting with their marketing team, which led to a cause-marketing program that raised over $100,000.

During this time we pursued other cause-marketing agreements with companies in our bull's-eye and inner circle. When we were ready, we researched and approached businesses in the outer ring. 

We took our successes in the inner circle and reached out to a fast lube chain with 40 area locations. Not only did they admire our previous success, but they seized the chance to work with other partners in a co-marketing partnership that had the potential to drive traffic to their locations.

Of course, not every organization can start with companies in the bull's-eye. They may not have any existing company supporters to tap. Some nonprofits don't even have contacts, or companies in that second inner circle. This happens when nonprofits rely on grants for funding or have a poorly connected board.

You might think that you can just start at the outer circle and make cold calls. Not very fun and usually not very effective. It sometimes works, but when you're stuck in the outer ring where it's cold and lonely, a better option would be to revisit the basics such as cultivating individual major donors, adding influential members to your board, and building your brand. That way one day you can score a cause-marketing bull's-eye.

Joe Waters wrote the book (two books in fact) about cause marketing. Don't miss his Cause Marketing for Dummies and Fundraising With Businesses.