What Cause Marketing Can Learn From Workplace Giving

More Choices and Matching = More Consumers Who Care About Your Cause Marketing Campaign
May 30, 2011 2:10 PM ET

Giving is personal.  Yet most cause marketing initiatives give individuals the chance to help support only a single cause selected by the company. It’s like people have thrown demographic and psychographic segmentation out the window just because it’s a social good program.  But these are significant (and growing) investments, and require an impactful business and social ROI.

Consumer choice is absent in most conventional cause marketing campaigns (and by choice I don’t mean the ability to merely cast a vote, of 99% of which will be unsuccessful!).  Similarly, corporate matching is rarely used or clearly communicated.  Despite the prevalence of personalization and mass democratization and empowered by the web, there is still a remarkably robust business for consultants helping companies connect a single “strategic” cause or pillar to their business and marketing endeavors.

Meanwhile, there is a growing body of data illustrating that this narrow approach may be self-limiting. Taking a look at how greater choice and matching have positively impacted workplace giving programs is instructive for companies that want to break away from me-too cause marketing and roll-out cause initiatives that deliver more consumer engagement. (Not to mention do more good.)

A recent trip to New York City illustrated a good slice of the cause marketing status quo and what’s missing for consumers: choice, interaction and most of all, engagement.  In the span of a few days, I fielded a flurry of cause marketing offers, most of which were transactional top-up (i.e.: do you want to add a donation of $X to Charity Y?) or promotional (spend $X and save Y%, which we’ll donate to Charity Z). 

One Example:  At a prominent drugstore chain,  I’m asked as part of the purchase process if I would like to add a $2 donation to support an AIDS organization (I confess I can’t recall the specific name of the charity).  In turn, I ask the clerk if the store will be matching donations (I admit, this is my standard question).  The clerk looks at me like I haven’t understood.  She repeats the question.  I repeat mine.  Yup, this is going nowhere.  With no corporate matching funds apparent, and a line of impatient (but personable) New Yorkers behind me, I just pay and go.  Opportunity to find out if prominent drug store chain is kicking in for their customer donations: lost to employee ignorance.  Chance for me to support a cause that personally resonates with me: zero.  Feeling a brand halo effect or engaged? Not so much.  (Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a worthy cause and if they raise some money, that’s a good thing; it just isn’t a very compelling cause marketing offer to me and doesn’t help me support a cause that I feel passionate about). 

There were others, but a bout of shoe mania has obscured specific recall…Overall, it seemed like there were a slew of offers from retailers whose marketing people had read the Cone and Edelman reports last Fall and wanted in on the cause marketing action.  Social purpose is a purchase trigger?  Americans want more cause marketing offers? Check.

But where is the consumer when it comes to these offers? How are companies helping consumers support causes that matter to them?  The drugstore example is a nice one of lose-lose cause marketing.  You ask me at the cash which puts me on the spot: if I say I don’t want to pony up the two bucks, the cool guy next to me thinks I’m a deadbeat loser; if I agree, I’m feeling bullied into the donation because the cause doesn’t resonate with me.  Ironically, it’s almost a reason to go down the street to another store that isn’t trying to do diddly for charity. 

Doing cause marketing badly is worse than not doing it at all.  Maybe that’s why last fall, in addition to the studies showing that cause marketing matters more and that consumers want more cause marketing, there were also articles that alluded to consumers’ disenchantment for cause marketing (See related stories from the New York Times and the Globe and Mail).

So how could cause marketing be more meaningful to consumers?  Here’s where taking a page from (effective) workplace giving programs could help cause marketers hugely on the engagement front: give people greater charity choices and use corporate matching to incent giving to the corporately-chosen or strategic causes.  (And while you’re at it give them a way to aggregate their donations conveniently and get a tax receipt.)

On the workplace giving front, greater charity choice is a proven way to increase participation, engagement and social impact (read: more money going to more causes).  There are many companies that know this experientially (we talk to them every day) though there are few published reports on the topic.  One great one is a 2010 LBG research study on workplace giving which found that, overall, companies that make the change from United Way-only to an open or expanded choice workplace giving program report higher participation rates, higher donor rates and increased dollars donated.  97% of companies with expanded choice workplace giving programs stated that it increases employee participation and 66% reported that it increases employee morale. (Source: LBG Associates, Workplace Giving Works, Make it Work for You, 2010).   The United Way’s own data shows a sharp increase in the number of donors who “write in” their own choice.  The reason?  People care more than they used to about where the money is going (and that is a good thing!)

Matching matters, too.  In the workplace giving context, companies are using corporate matching as a way to incent employees to give to their corporate causes (either a specific charity, or a portfolio of causes, (i.e: Company X Environment Fund comprised of three environmental charities).  Again, the data shows it works.  Just having a match increases employee participation, according to 92% of companies (LBG Research “Workplace Giving Works”, 2010).

Although we admit that here at Benevity we’re a passionately biased bunch, it seems clear to us that cause marketing could take a page from workplace giving to yield greater consumer engagement.  Creating cause marketing offers with greater consumer choice and clear corporate matching offers a way to ignite participation.  Companies have a way to create a greater connection with their customers – and, through, corporate matching, a way to be more authentic, transparent and targeted in their cause marketing programs.  Not to mention a way to break through the clutter of me-too cause marketing.  More charities would receive more dollars.  It’s a win-win-win.  (We’re betting that for companies, all that increased consumer participation and engagement would move the needle on the sales front to boot!). 

And for the record, just because you empower customer or employee choice in your cause programs doesn’t mean you’re “greenwashing” or can’t stand for something or be strategic (that’s where the portfolios of causes and the matching comes in).  It just makes good business and social sense.