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Amy Sept

Cause-Related Marketing: When Doing Good Goes Bad

By: Amy Sept | May 23, 2013 | 
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Cause-Related Marketing: When Doing Good Goes Bad“I don’t know how other people do it. I won’t work with non-profit clients ever again!”

And so it begins: Another marketing pro frustrated by the way things work, and sometimes don’t, within the non-profit world.

We all have work we love, and work that we…love less.

I will never forget the woman who told me — not realizing I was the writer behind it — that a website she’d read made it easier for her family to accept and begin to manage the reality of a disease that was turning their lives upside down.

It’s that short line between words and affect that draws so many of us to cause-related marketing work.

But it’s not all hugs and fuzzy feelings. Even people who thrive in non-profit environments can understand frustrations such as stalled volunteer committees, layers of approvals, or that feeling of having “too many cooks in the kitchen.”

There are also peaks and valleys on both sides of this relationship. For people who move from for-profit to a non-profit environment, it can sometimes feel as if you’re speaking different languages — and something is getting lost in translation.

Understanding how my marketing colleague felt about her experience, I couldn’t help but wonder: What can we do to make life easier for ourselves and the organizations we work with?

Tag One Person to Be in Charge

There’s a reason so many people get involved in decision-making within non-profit organizations: There’s often no single person who deals with marketing and public relations issues. Instead, it might be a coordinated effort between the executive director and a fundraising person, managed by a volunteer committee, or even driven by the board of directors.

Brainstorming and collaboration are one thing, but “creating by committee” is enough to send anyone running for the hills. You need to know who’s in charge of the project, and limit the number of decision makers. One public relations colleague recently told me she will only accept projects when she will work directly with the executive director.

Beyond having one designated person in charge, be clear from the beginning about the decision-making process itself. On one project, I knew the lead was the executive director — but I failed to anticipate the status updates to multiple committees meant to keep everyone in the loop and increase buy-in.

Understand What Success Looks Like to Them

We often create our own systems or processes that help get results; in fact, that process may be why you were brought in. There’s comfort in knowing that a professional has a proven history of getting organizations from Point A to Point B.

However, that doesn’t mean the amazing idea you have is the right fit for the organization, or that it matches what they see as success.

Does that sound a little counterintuitive? Before you lead organizations through the steps you believe they should take, ensure those steps are taking them in a direction that makes sense to them.

Hildy Gottlieb, co-founder and chief boundary pusher of Creating the Future, says we need to actively listen and ask questions — then, ask more questions.

“Stop giving advice,” she said (and yes, she did spot the irony in this comment!). Advice, she noted, is what we would do if we were in their shoes — which we are not. Instead, she suggested, “listen for the wisdom in others, and help them see and tap into that wisdom.”

Don’t Forget: You’re the Expert

As much as you need to actively listen, at the end of the day you’re still the expert. Don’t be afraid to own that role when you need to.

I was on the non-profit side working with a consultant who’d been asking questions and listening for so long we began to suspect she was holding out on us! We felt stuck, turning in circles, because we weren’t sure of the “right answer” or the next step.

So, if things seem to stall, don’t be afraid to guide the project forward. Non-profit marketing and fundraising consultant Susan Detwiler says it’s up to you to highlight relationships between what the organization is saying and how it supports the goal. “It’s not your answer, it’s the organization’s answer. But you’re the one who heard them say it.”

What else do you think we can do to help foster productive relationships between communicators and cause-related groups?

About Amy Sept


Amy Sept is the consultant and writer behind Nimbyist Communications. She combines her natural geekiness with more than a decade of professional communications experience to help non-profits and small businesses build their reputations in print and online.

15 comments
Elaine_Fogel
Elaine_Fogel

Having worked on the 'inside' for many years, and now as the external 'expert,' I totally get the frustration consultants can experience. The idea of having one staff point person is sound. However, I believe that volunteers should not be directly involved in organizational operations. 

They should be advising and consulting on big picture issues. And, when they are more hands on, planning and coordinating events or special projects, the staff liaison must establish the roles and responsibilities clearly. That´s called good leadership. 

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the nonprofit sector, but they come and go. It's up to professional staff to lead, show them appreciation, and work with them. Ultimately, the staff hold fiduciary and strategic accountability to the board, and not to ad hoc committees. 

biggreenpen
biggreenpen

I really liked your tips in this post. It is a FINE balance between you as the PR professional really understanding the vision the non profit has for itself and its beneficiaries --- and the fact that they likely don't know much about how to do the work you are there to do so you have to separate yourself a bit from the good heartedness and lay down a specific plan that has everything to do with following through on a plan and not as much to do with the specific cause at hand. I work for a non profit -- most of our funding is federal w/a healthy mix of state -- as a result the number of stakeholders is high - the actual enrollees and their families, the legislators who hold our budget strings, multiple state agencies. Over almost 20 years there it still amazes me that we often lose sight of the fact that the #1 way people learn about (and like) our program is when their neighbor loves it - all the bus cards, billboards, pamphlets, tv ads, radio spots in the world are frequently much less effective than making sure families have good experiences and tell other families (and dissatisfied families get a response). Anyway, thanks for addressing this and I really encourage you all not to be afraid of working with non profits. We don't bite (we can't afford to).

jdrobertson
jdrobertson

First and foremost: Prepare a PHYSCIAL organizational chart to be posted prominently on EVERY wall of EVERY person in the chain of command. The information contained thereon will be the specific duties of the people holding the position described in the box. No deviations! The chart is to be large, 500 point font if you must! Anywhere, anytime the project at hand is to be discussed  - it will be discussed with that chart in sight. Physical copies will be carried to "away" meetings. Make it a rule no business will be conducted unless the chart is present, full size on the wall. This should  materially keep the keep the non-profit on course bearing in mind  "volunteers is as volunteers does."

maxchristianhansen
maxchristianhansen

I really like that last point, Amy. Most clients know what the solution is, and you can get them to say it. Much of a consultant's job is to highlight the solution among all the non-solutions that will also emerge as the client speaks.

Communic8nHowe
Communic8nHowe

Good advice Amy! I hope this helps the social profit sector have the best possible experience when working without outside resources such as we provide.

amysept
amysept

That's an excellent point, Elaine, thank you for raising it! I was going to try to play devil's advocate, but when I reflect on both business and volunteer experiences, you're right: Even in small organizations with limited staff and empowered volunteers, I think the relationships that work still have a staff person who's ultimately accountable.

amysept
amysept

@biggreenpen Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Paula. I think most PR pros really do put a lot of time and effort into understanding organizations they work with (non-profit or not) but as you note, there can be a lot of intricacies to wade through! Listening and balance are so key. "...we often lose sight of the fact that the #1 way people learn about (and like) our program is when their neighbor loves it" << This is so true!!

amysept
amysept

Interesting idea, James. It definitely adds confusion to the mix when people aren't sure who's responsible for what!

amysept
amysept

"...highlight the solution among all the non-solutions that will also emerge..." I like the way you phrase that!

amysept
amysept

Thanks, James — I hope so, too!

Word Ninja
Word Ninja

@amysept @biggreenpen Love seeing a post on non-profits, great points. I've mostly worked for non-profits and, YES, the client experience and word of mouth ultimately are the best means of promotion...and the ones we have the least control over except to ensure the customer/client has a great experience in the first place. Thanks for the post...

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