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Five Steps To Nurture a 30-Year Cause Marketing Relationship

Last Monday, July 22, 2013, March of Dimes released the annual results of its campaign with Kmart... now in its thirtieth year... and thereby begged the question, what does it takes to have a multi-decade cause marketing relationship between a cause and a sponsor?

In the most recent year, Kmart,the discount retailer, donated $7.4 million to the March of Dimes, bringing the 30-year total to nearly $114 million. March of Dimes works to improve the health of mothers and babies.

Too many cause marketing relationships, in my estimation, resemble speed-dating more than long-term marriage. There can be good reasons for short-term cause marketing relationships. But most causes and sponsors benefit more from long-term marriages than short-term hookups, the main benefit being continuity. Cause marketing trades on the trust that people, usually consumers, put in the cause and the sponsor. The longer the relationship lasts the more trust is evidenced.

There's also a sponsor finding cost that is not inconsiderable. Churn in cause marketing relationships, like anywhere else, is expensive while engendering loyalty is almost always cheaper than finding a new sponsors.    

But on to the question at hand, how do you nurture a sponsor-cause relationship so that it can last 20 or 30 years or longer?

  1. Set the expectation for a long-term relationship right from the start. That is, tell prospective partners that so long as both parties continue to benefit you want a long-term relationship.
  2. Build a web of relationships at all levels of both organizations. People will follow the lead of the CEO, so her commitment is absolutely necessary. But it can go the other way, too. That is, sometimes CEOs follow the lead of the lower and mid-level people. Bear in mind that over the last 30 years Kmart has traveled a rocky road and has been through a half dozen CEOs. In 2004 Kmart merged with Sears. If the relationship with March of Dimes was entirely top-down driven, it almost certainly would have ended well before hitting the 30-year mark.
  3. Keep campaign elements relevant, but don't change things for its own sake. Earlier this year the Cause Marketing Forum looked at cause marketing at retail and found that the biggest chunk of fundraising efforts came from paper icons, coin canisters and change roundup efforts. That stuff has been around since since Gen-Y was in diapers. You aren't doing your job if you aren't actively testing new cause marketing ideas and approaches. But you aren't meeting your fiduciary responsibilities if all you do is chase the latest cause marketing fads. 
  4. Make sure there's an emotional component to the relationship between the parties. People and companies will give of their time or money once to a cause because they think it's the smart thing to do. But the only way they'll keep giving is if they have an emotional connection to the cause. Causes need to make sense to sponsors and their customers, but they have to have emotional appeal to engender a multi-decade relationship.
  5. Track, test, document, and give thanks. A cause and its sponsor both better be able to explain to anyone who asks why their relationship works and what they get out of it. That means tracking results. Dollars are easy to track, but they shouldn't be the only thing being tracked. In its press release, March of Dimes listed four ways in which Kmart makes a difference to babies and moms. These things have to be documented, otherwise they'll be lost to the sands of time and the forgetfulness of human memory. Finally, when I say 'thanks' I'm not only talking about causes thanking their sponsors. Sponsors should also express their gratitude to their cause partners. The fact that the cause is frequently the junior partner in a cause marketing relationship doesn't absolve them from expressing their heartfelt thanks, because they derive benefit from the relationships too. 

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