If your nonprofit organization has a great mission but a tiny budget, guess what? You’re the perfect candidate for worthy cause marketing. By partnering with the right small companies and start-ups, you can gain instant access to potential new members, donations, event attendees, and more…and have a lot of fun in the process.
You feel fortunate to lead a nonprofit organization (NPO). You really do. You’ve managed to take a mission you’re passionate about, marry it with some good business sense, and find other people with similar viewpoints to help you get the operation off the ground. But you can’t say you’ve “made it” yet. You’re still shooting for growth, increased membership, donations, publicity, and planning more events…and the problem is, you don’t have the budget to adequately pay for any of it. Is your fledgling NPO doomed to perpetual obscurity, or even worse, failure?
Relax…and pour yourself a glass of wine. Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey, the founders of Barefoot Cellars (the company that transformed the image of American wine from staid and unimaginative to fun, lighthearted, and hip), owe their success to an unconventional but highly cost-effective way to get the word out about their products: worthy cause marketing (WCM). And it didn’t hurt the NPOs they joined forces with either!
“People who lead small start-ups and those who lead grassroots nonprofit organizations have a lot in common,” notes Houlihan, who along with Harvey wrote The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built a Bestseller (coming in February 2013 from Evolve Publishing). “Both are accustomed to thinking creatively. Both are generally short on cash. And both are really passionate about what they do.
“When the two groups merge their innovation, their work ethics, and their passion, amazing things can happen,” he adds. “It creates a synergy that benefits all concerned—the small business, the NPO, and the ultimate recipients of their combined goodwill.”
As their book describes, back in 1986 when Barefoot was founded, Houlihan and Harvey started spreading the word about their wines by partnering with NPOs that believed in the same causes they believed in—specifically, environmentalism and civil rights. In this way, they gained access to lots of potential customers and gave them a “social reason” to buy Barefoot wine. And in return, the NPOs received donated product and manpower at events, as well as publicity via Barefoot’s distribution channels.
“We donated wine at fundraising events (where legal), we worked festivals, and we got out into the community to talk about causes we were passionate about, Barefoot wine, and our NPO partners—all in the same breath,” says Harvey. “It was very much a grassroots effort, and because we worked hard, had fun, and believed in what we were doing, it paid off for us and the NPOs with which we worked.”
Specifically, Barefoot teamed up with Surfrider Foundation, the San Francisco LGBT Center, and the League to Save Lake Tahoe while these organizations were in their grassroots infancy. Barefoot was effective in getting its message out to its own consumers and helping the NPOs with fundraising efforts.
Here are seven tips your NPO can use to harness the power of worthy cause marketing and grow your organization:
Identify a worthy cause that reflects your organization’s mission and values. This step should be fairly easy. All you have to do is decide what your NPO stands for. Usually, this will tie in with your mission—if the two aren’t already one and the same. For example, the Red Cross’s (a very well-known NPO) cause is humanitarianism. And it’s possible that your NPO might even identify with several causes; for instance, the World Wide Fund for Nature’s causes include environmentalism (including conservation, restoration, and research), protecting endangered species, and combating pollution.
It’s best to pick a broader cause rather than something very specific, because more companies that are interested in working for you might identify with it. And if for some reason your NPO’s mission doesn’t easily link up with a particular for profit product or service, perhaps your mission will align with the for profit’s ownership’s core values. Barefoot Wine’s causes centered on local parks, civil rights, and environmentalism.
Find companies that also connect to your cause. Start your search with smaller local companies. While they might not be as well-known as national and international giants (or be able to write substantial checks), they might be more appreciative and loyal, and working with them might be substantially easier since you’re less likely to encounter bureaucracy, red tape, and internal regulations.
It’s best to partner with a company whose products or services complement your mission. A nonprofit dedicated to making repairs to the homes of underprivileged families would be a good fit for a company that manufactures hammers or a locally based and owned hardware store. If possible partners don’t immediately come to mind, let your NPO’s employees and/or members know that you’re interested in worthy cause marketing. And if all else fails, harness the power of the Internet!
Start small and stay loyal. As Houlihan has already suggested, it’s best to look for partner companies who are smaller and local. Small companies tend to be “hungrier” and therefore more motivated to put in the work on behalf of your cause. And local companies and companies with local staff may be more likely to have customers in your area who might be interested in joining your NPO and/or attending its events (which might not be the case with a larger company who doesn’t really need to make a local statement).
Of course, you can’t discount the fact that as companies grow bigger their charitable pockets grow deeper, notes Houlihan. All the more reason to help make them more visible! Once these companies get established, they may be in a better position to provide more than product, legwork, and getting the word out.
“Even the biggest, most well-known companies in the world had to start somewhere,” he says. “Who knows? Maybe the small company down the street will one day go on to become a household name across the country. Just imagine how much publicity your NPO would get then! But no matter how big and successful your partner companies become, they’ll be appreciative of the fact that you helped them get off the ground. As they grow, you’ll grow…and vice versa!”
Whatever you do, don’t charge money. To bring in a little extra cash, you might be tempted to take a page from the book of some large NPOs and charge your prospective partner companies a sponsorship fee. Don’t. The companies that are likely to help you the most (i.e., those that are small, just starting out, or both) probably don’t have the extra cash. Why discourage them from what they can do for you?
Make it clear that all you’re asking for at this point is that the company donate its products, time, pre-existing marketing resources, and possibly manpower. Even if you aren’t cashing a check, you’ll still be saving a lot of money. At Barefoot, we donated wine to our NPO partners, publicized our support of them, and actually paid our local salespeople to help set up, serve, and clean at events. Just think how much money those organizations would have had to spend to pay for all of those things out of pocket!
Ask your partner companies for the right things. You are giving them visibility and access to a lot of potential customers (i.e., your supporters). Don’t be afraid to ask them to help you out, too. If they’re like Barefoot, they will expect to donate products and help out at events. You might also ask them to:
• Link your webpage to theirs
• Mention your NPO, its events, and/or why the company supports you on their website, merchandising materials, publications, advertising, signage, and/or retail displays.
• Sponsor a fundraiser for your NPO
• Donate space for your events
• Solicit their customers to help out and/or join your NPO
Before your partnership gets underway, it’s always a good idea to go over ‘the plan’ with companies to make sure there are no misunderstandings and that everyone agrees on what is going to happen. You should know beforehand how the company is going to help you and what they expect from you in return.
Shine a light on your partner companies. Worthy cause marketing is a two-way street. Do whatever is in your power to get your partners’ messages out. Start by spotlighting your shared cause, the companies with which you work, and why you support them on your NPO’s website, publications, and merchandising materials. Here are some other ways in which you can help promote your partner companies:
• Live appreciation from the podium at events
• Links to the company’s webpage
• Complimentary passes, tickets, or seats to your events, which they can use as “thank-yous” to their local buyers
• Copies of formal announcements and invitations for their records (these might even be framed and displayed!)
• Signage at your events
• A display table at your events for the company’s handouts
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that Barefoot Cellars owes its success to the NPOs that believed in us, supported us, and helped us to advertise our product free of cost,” shares Houlihan. “And to this day, we personally remain appreciative and loyal to them.”
Remember to have fun. Worthy cause marketing is one of those activities in which sincerity and positivity really pay off. Because you work for an NPO, you already know the joys of working for the good of humankind, animals, or the earth. However, this may be brand new territory for your new business partners. They may dive into their new role as cause promoter with a zeal that will reenergize you, too.
“It’s fun to be part of something bigger than yourself and it’s good to be reminded of that from time to time,” says Houlihan. “The enthusiasm of new ‘converts’ can not only help your organization grow, it can help you approach the cause you’re all working toward with fresh eyes and a renewed spirit.”
That’s the “heart” he and Harvey are referring to in the subtitle of their book, and they firmly believe it has made all the difference in Barefoot’s success—as well as that of many of its NPO partners.
“Sure, it’s nice to partner with companies that have deep pockets and can write big checks,” he says. “Money is always needed and appreciated. But I believe there is no substitute for willing hands and hearts working together for a worthy cause both parties are committed to.”
“I found this to be true in the early days when Barefoot was just getting off the ground, and I hear it all the time from NPO leaders I work with,” he adds. “Worthy cause marketing works and it works well—it’s an idea whose time has come.”