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Where is All the Cause Marketing with Faith-Based Nonprofits?

In Feb 2013, I got an email from a remarkable student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill who had an intriguing question: why isn’t there more cause marketing between sponsors and faith-based nonprofits?

It’s a question I’d wondered about myself so it was fun to be asked to think about. Marshele Carter Waddell and I talked about it several times in the intervening months. Marshele is a grad student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC, the executive director of a faith-based nonprofit, the author of four books, the 28-Year Wife of a U.S. Navy SEAL Commander (ret) and mother of a U.S. Marine Infantry Officer who received the “Bronze Star for Valor for things sons don't tell their mothers,” as she puts it.

With her permission I publish the conclusion of her analysis which is one section in a report of a larger project called, "Corporations, Creeds and Cause-related Marketing Campaigns: Defining the Graces that Save and the Sins that Sink Corporate Social Responsibility Endeavors with Faith-based, Nonprofit Organizations."
Based on the six interviews, it appears that, shoulder to shoulder, faith-based nonprofit organizations and faith-neutral nonprofit organizations do not enjoy the same windows of opportunities for cause-related marketing endeavors. Two nonprofit leaders, an author, two marketing and development agency directors and a for-profit vice president agreed that, in general, faith-based nonprofit organizations are at a disadvantage from the starting blocks to the finish line in pursuing cause-related marketing partnerships. 

However there are considerations and steps that faith-based nonprofit organizations can take as they seek to more effectively compete for cause-related marketing partnerships. The following suggestions and advice emerged in the interviews:
  • A thorough understanding of both the nonprofit organization’s target markets and the potential partner for-profit organization’s target markets is essential in selecting potential partners to approach. This step also simplifies the inherent self-selection nature of cause-related marketing partnerships.
  • Faith-based nonprofit organizations should invest energies to create programs that meet the for-profit world halfway, i.e. generating deliverable outputs and programs that have value to society in general, while staying true to the faith-based nonprofit organization’s core values and mission statement.
  • Faith-based nonprofit organizations should focus on creating a business model that provides qualitative metrics, collecting meaningful data, verifying that data by triangulating with alternative research methods, such as focus groups and follow-up evaluations, and being able to report on the difference the program or campaign is making in constituents’ lives in measurable terms.
  • Interactive Evaluation Systems, such as one provided by the Department of Defense for recipients of its grants, as well as financial accountability accreditation agencies like the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, Guidestar, and Charity Navigator, provide a third-party source for credibility for faith-based nonprofit organizations.
  • Faith-based nonprofit organizations that learn to speak the language of the for-profit arena make strides in forming positive relationships with companies. The ability to interact confidently when discussing basic business concepts, such as marketing intelligence, return on investment and metrics, is essential. 
  • Attention should also be given to eliminating charged vocabulary, such as using “program” instead of “ministry” and “faith-neutral” instead of “secular.”
  • Faith-based nonprofit organizations can consider restructuring their business models and organizational message to become what interviewees called “covert” without compromising mission, objectives and motives.
  • Faith-based organizations can explore an alternative angle for approaching potential for-profit groups by inviting a balanced selection of other faith-based nonprofit organizations to collaborate in the creation and implementation of the cause-related marketing campaign. 
  • Faith-based nonprofit organizations can improve their websites to include a “Cause Marketing” tab for corporate visitors that defines cause-related marketing, suggests businesses ideas for partnership and presents the benefits of alignment.
  • Tenacity and endurance are critical organizational characteristics for faith-based nonprofits that compete for cause-marketing relationships with nonprofits. Weathering the ebb and flow of political and social climates will enable faith-based nonprofit organizations to endure and outlast cultural evolutions.
Both of the marketing agency directors who were interviewed provided insights into which faith-based nonprofit organizations should consider including cause-related marketing campaigns in their overall marketing strategy. The investment of staff, budget and other resources into pursuing cause-related partnerships is worthwhile if the faith-based nonprofit organization has a strong cause that both supersedes religion and also intersects with widely held religious/spiritual values. Headline issues and programs that address a national, cross-generational, cross-cultural, widespread problem warrant cause-related marketing consideration. Examples of such causes include caring for returning veterans and their families, ending homelessness, eliminating sex trafficking and encouraging responsible fatherhood.  

The gap in scholarly literature and the disconnect in the national dialogue on the subject of faith-based nonprofit organizations in cause-related marketing partnerships, both confirmed in this research, present an opportunity not only for further research but for educating both camps, the for-profit and nonprofit realms, about the opportunities and challenges of such partnerships. Corporations have room for improvement in creating, communicating and making available their marketing partnership criteria, specifically in regards to their willingness to support and to partner with faith-based nonprofit organizations. Faith-based organizations must refine their efforts by
  • Clarifying their business mission statement,
  • Crystallizing their cause,
  • Communicating that message to companies in a clear, concise and compelling manner, and
  • Providing measurable outputs that create a win-win partnership.
This shift will inevitably require progressive, visionary leadership on the part of the faith-based nonprofit organizations and the willingness of corporations to recognize the fiscal value of relationship with those of the faith community.


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