Making the for-profit case for non-profit marketing

Sandra is a graduate of the George Washington University with a Bachelors of Arts in Political Communication, and a Masters of Arts in Global Communication in International Affairs. Sandra is a member of the Women in Foreign Policy Group, Net Impact, and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She works in communications in Washington DC.

In his recently published book, John G. Taft, CEO of RBC Wealth Management, describes stewardship as the unwavering belief that the true purpose of organizations and communities is to serve others. Juxtaposed to the industry he derived this definition from, financial services, Taft’s argument is not an all-out rejection of Milton Friedman’s argument that the role of business is to increase its own profit. 42 years after Friedman’s argument first published, companies, corporations, communities and small businesses are increasingly tasked with finding ways to both profit and serve. The biggest obstacle to success in this is the attempt to achieve both goals with different strategies. Profit-seeking initiatives often do not line up with service-oriented activities, rendering service activities weaker and less effectively communicated to stakeholders. The argument that profit and service are not mutually exclusive is an important one, and it suggests that profit and service-seeking strategies should not differ in terms of communication approaches or goals.

When the divide between for-profit and CSR activities is noticed, it is typically not as a result of an organized internal audit of social initiatives; it is brought to management’s attention by a reputational threat or a rebranding exercise. More commonly, the service activity goes completely unnoticed. Communicating the excellence of a company’s successful business model, whether through investor communications or transparent customer relations, is made easier by integrating public service initiatives that are logical extensions of the company’s normal work. A company with a strong mission statement, steadfast core values, and a successful portfolio that also contributes to the service of others typically does not have difficulty making their case to stakeholders and customers. When Home Depot spends $30 million on veterans’ housing needs, audiences easily make the connection between business and charity, employees are empowered by their mission, and shareholders quickly agree to the expenditures. When organizations have divergent strategies for profit and service, however, the brand and company suffer.

Companies can easily find themselves participating in CSR programs that end up costing more than the value they generate. Value is created not through flashy, unfocused charity work, but through strategic initiatives communicated under the umbrella of the company’s mission statement.  Because of this, CSR, philanthropy, and impact investing often fall under the purview of strategic communication specialists.

Charged with reviving a reputation or clarifying a value-proposition, communications teams are responsible for some of the most innovative and successful sustainability and CSR programs to date. They create philanthropic partnerships and transform checkbook philanthropy into strategic giving, establishing a clear purpose and engaging communications. Crucially, socially impactful initiatives that align with core values contribute to an organization’s positive public perception, and therefore to brand performance. Many of these social programs are not the brain-children of the company’s executive leadership; rather, they are created as a response to a serious branding need. Most communications professionals would argue that this scenario highlights a serious problem within many organizations. Companies must engage in these activities proactively, protecting themselves from potential threats to reputation, and allowing an appropriate amount of time for research, planning, and implementation. While CSR is not an appropriate response to correcting poor stewardship, it is a way to signal serious institutional change, demonstrating that an organization is ready to commit some of its most valuable resources—talent and capital.

Communications plans that propel these strategic initiatives are also better at measuring results than traditional social giving metrics, as they can provide insight into public perception and participation, on-the-ground effects, and brand impact. This is particularly important today, as CSR campaigns live under intense scrutiny. The costs are high, yet immediate results are rare and can put programming in peril if the case is not made properly. Traditional and social media components of these campaigns are subject to the most detailed analytics, allowing companies to adjust course where needed, based on the target audiences’ interaction with the brand. When executed properly, broad audiences become invested and engaged, leading to greater equity and reach of the issue at hand. The public measures a company with steadfast principles by its own yardstick. Stakeholders will look to the company because they are committing resources to a particular “do good” program, and if they do not find a link between core values and programming, they will quickly lose interest.

Focusing a company’s service-oriented efforts on tangible, measurable ways to “move the needle” by spending less and giving more is a difficult exercise. Yet thanks to a decade-long transformation of the digital space, the capacity to launch these initiatives is no longer a demonstration of deep pockets, but rather proof of the depth of a company’s creativity. A number of Fortune 500 companies have been lauded for their CSR efforts publicly through awards, organic media coverage, or the ever-coveted praise of the activists who once opposed them. These successes are often a direct result of a communications campaign that sought to engage and empower customers by including them in the conversation and soliciting input. For example, General Mill’s Box Tops for Education has garnered over $400 million in donations since 1996, directly benefiting students and teachers in the United States while embedding the box-top-toting cereals in the hearts and homes of families all over the country. Their business purpose, setting General Mills cereal as the preferred before-school meal, clearly aligns with their service initiative, improving the quality of local schools. The most important aspect of this campaign, however, was the active engagement of the consumer. If you bring the box top from your favorite cereal to school, you will be contributing to your school and bettering the state of education in America. The brand itself benefits beyond any ad buy, and the cause continues to be better served than by any donation drive.

Today we have myriad more ways to empower individuals to participate in helping corporations serve their communities. One of the most effective ways to bolster an organization’s reputation through CSR initiatives is engaging in strategic partnerships that solidly links its profit-seeking achievements with its community engagement. Strategic partnerships with public or non-profit entities already engaged in a particular public service provide the expert insights into making a CSR program work. Creating a strategic and mutually-beneficial partnership allows a company or a non-profit to do good well. Enhancing a brand through these partnerships means enhancing the awareness of a particular cause or issue. Tide’s Loads of Hope, American Express Small Business Saturday, Dawn’s Wildlife Champions and countless others are benefiting from these corporate partnerships while encouraging stakeholder participation.

They also serve to prove that an increase in demand on resources or an initial decrease in revenue is no reason to axe a giving program because social good and profit are not mutually exclusive. Smart companies that understand how to maintain their profitability by building leaner processes replicate the strategy with their giving efforts in a resourceful way— focusing and synchronizing mission, employees, giving, and messaging. A mission statement that informs all audiences of an organization’s purpose must be supported by deeds, and those deeds must be communicated. Reaching out to the public with cohesive service initiatives that appropriately compliment an organization’s business objective helps communicate the mission, building lasting brand equity and consumer trust.