Why the Intersection of Cause and Commerce is Not Black or White

Chicago traffic intersection 1932

By: David Hessekiel

People who mix business and pro-social goals are often portrayed as either opportunistic corporate “cause washers” cynically exploiting nonprofits, or visionary social entrepreneurs for whom conducting trade is just a necessary evil in their quest to create a better world.


While it’s tempting to paint the intersection of cause and commerce in stark black and white, it’s a far more nuanced landscape full of well-intentioned people doing their best to cope with diverse internal and external challenges from making payroll to figuring out the best way to distribute development aid.

These days the marketplace is replete with large and small efforts to do well by doing good.   Market research has shown big businesses that consumers around the world increasingly demand evidence that the companies they buy goods and services from are good corporate citizens.   Inspired by TOMS Shoes, Ben & Jerry’s, Better World Books and other companies with giving back programmed into their DNA, many entrepreneurs seek to create enterprises that feed their souls as well as their bank accounts.

Social purpose can be an impact multiplier, but good intentions alone are far from sufficient to bless such ventures with success.   To generate substantial financial and social dividends, these initiatives must be carefully conceived, adequately resourced and well executed.

Providing a road map to cause-related success for companies large and small was the engine that moved my co-authors Philip Kotler, Nancy Lee and I to write our recently published book “Good Works!”   It’s a handbook to choosing appropriate issues, setting objectives, determining strategy, developing plans and effectively communicating cause-related campaigns to consumers, employees, supporters and cynics.

Interviews with numerous business and nonprofit players around the world led us to break out six major types of initiatives.   We’ve further divided them into two groups: marketing initiatives (cause promotion, cause-related marketing and corporate social marketing) and those that more broadly express and advance corporate values and objectives (corporate philanthropy, workforce volunteering and socially responsible business practices.)

Becoming familiar with these six different types of activities is an empowering way for a company to start considering how value and values mix in its approach to business.   In future columns, I’ll dive more deeply into each initiative category, but to get you started here are essential definitions and examples from Starbucks, a company with experience in all of them.

Cause Promotion: A company provides funds, in-kind contributions, or other resources for promotions that increase awareness and concern about a social cause or to support fundraising, participation or volunteer recruitment for a cause.   Example: As part of its Create Jobs for USA program, Starbucks encourages consumers to contribute $5 or more in stores or online and rewards them with a red, white and blue bracelet.

Cause-Related Marketing: A company links monetary or in-kind donations to product sales or other consumer actions.  Example: For every bottle of Ethos water sold, Starbucks contributes five cents to the Ethos Water Fund for projects that help children gain access to clean water.

Corporate Social Marketing: A company supports the development and/or implementation of a behavior change campaign intended to improve public health, safety, the environment or community well-being.   Example:  To encourage consumers to reduce their environmental impact, Starbucks offers a 10-cent discount to consumers who bring in their own reusable cups instead of using the company’s disposable paper cups.

Corporate Philanthropy: A company makes a direct contribution to a charity or cause, most often in the form of cash grants, donations and/or in-kind services.   Example:  Starbucks kicked off its Create Jobs for USA program by making a $5 million contribution to the Opportunity Finance Network to support financing for underserved community businesses.

Workforce Volunteering: A company supports and encourages employees, retail partners, and/or franchise members to volunteer at local community organizations and causes.   Example:  In April 2012, Starbucks sponsored its second annual Global Month of Service which involved employees in service projects in 34 countries.

Socially Responsible Business Practices: A company adapts and conducts discretionary business practices and investments that support social causes to improve community well-being and/or protect the environment.  Example: For several years, Starbucks has taken a leadership role in convening food service and packaging industry players to explore the development of recyclable cups and systems for recycling them.

Even the most admired companies in this space recognize that successfully mixes doing well and going good is a journey that never ends.   As Ben Packard, Starbucks vice president for global responsibility, put it when releasing the company’s annual global responsibility report, “While our progress is certainly significant thanks to the commitment of our partners and the communities we serve, we recognize there is room for improvement.”

[Image credit: UIC Digital Collections, Flickr]

David Hessekiel is president of Cause Marketing Forum, a 10-year-old company that helps companies and causes succeed together by providing access to practical information and inspiration, valuable contacts and recognition for outstanding work.   He’s the co-author with Philip Kotler and Nancy Lee of “Good Works! Marketing and Corporate Initiatives that Build a Better World and the Bottom Line.”

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One response

  1. we The Association of People with Disability  from 52Yrs working for the disabled to make them independent Functional and Ergonomically we have reached out 24000 of Disabled, we want to introduce into CAUSE RELATED MARKETING, so that we can reach out more joining hands and making very one in the community Responsible. can you please GUIDE you to the contact person for CAUSE RELATED MARKETING.

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