Dancing with the Devil: Cause Marketing for Nonprofits

I’ve read the many posts on the Komen/KFC cause marketing partnership, most of them bashing KFC for cause washing. The logic is that eating fried chicken causes weight gain, a pre-condition of breast cancer. In reality, while there is a mismatch in this partnership, the fault actually lies with Komen and not KFC. This represents a larger issue where nonprofits consistently choose money over strategic partnerships, dancing with the wrong partner and degrading their brand value.

Yet when causes choose a brand partner that hurts their mission, they rarely take ownership of their poor strategic management. I wrote a long post on the topic a year ago, Brutal Truths About Cause Marketing when “social media for social good” was the meme of the day. From that post:

“The nonprofit sector should take responsibility for who it chooses to partner with and why (hat tip: Allison Fine, lecture, Georgetown University on March 31, 2009). The stresses of fundraising and marshaling resources — even in an economy like this one — do not justify shunning off responsibility for cause marketing sliminess and failures. Nonprofit organizations [risk tarnishing their image if they] don’t organize intelligent programs that manage their brands as well as attract donors…”

In the case of Komen, I am going to somewhat applaud KFC. Why? Because they are actually countering some of the ills their product causes. Per earlier posts, this gets to the heart of good corporate citizenship and social responsibility: Cleaning up the negative impact your products or services have on society.

And I am going to repeat words from my Dow and Live Earth post: We as a society need to understand that we cannot shun companies from doing the right thing, even when they have consistently done the wrong thing in the past… Are we so invested in corporate evil that we won’t let villains evolve into better citizens? For me, the answer is no. I would prefer dialogue and progress.

Where this campaign went from being a lethal generosity win for both parties to the current blogodrama is the use of buckets containing fried chicken versus only grilled chicken (hat tip, Ike). Only grilled chicken would have been an authentic statement about eating healthier (somewhat) in support of a good cause that combats the ills of fried food, while mindfully encouraging a product demand shift to grilled chicken. Instead, we are left feeling, well, greasy.

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Intelligently Manage Use of Your Nonprofit Brand

So in my mind the ills in the KFC/Komen partnership lie with a faulty campaign that supports product — fried chicken — which causes breast cancer. It tarnishes the Komen brand and causes more harm than good. Shame on Komen for not managing the use of their brand in a more intelligent fashion. While nonprofits desperately need cash, sacrificing your brand integrity in this fashion represents a major strategic error.

As a business owner I identify with the cry that nonprofits are cash starved. I also know that as a serial entrepreneur that every time I took a deal which felt wrong — but offered me immediate needed cash — that deal burned me. Oh yes, I have paid deeply for such deals.

A nonprofit’s job is not to raise money, but to affect change. Straying from missions leads to consequences, so intelligently vetting opportunities only makes sense. Like the American Red Cross’s Wendy Harman indicates in this comment, nonprofits need processes to work internally and with their cause marketing dance partners to create smarter campaigns that win for both brands. In corporate speak, nonprofits need branding guidelines for cause marketing campaigns.

Here are some suggested questions that I would ask if I was the nonprofit protecting my brand value:

1) Is this a financial win for the company or is it just another contest or cause-shopping effort with little obvious value?

2) Does the cause marketing campaign have a clearly stated theory of change so that we can measure not only financial results, but also how the effort positively impacted our stakeholders?

3) Does the partner offer products or services that have historically or currently cause damage to those that I help?

4) If 3 is yes, has the corporation changed or does it want to change, and in that sense, will changing the corporation’s behavior help our nonprofit positively impact our mission?

5) If 3 is yes, a second vetting question: Is the company willing to talk about its past/current issue in an authentic fashion, and why it is willing to combat some of the damage it causes?

6) Is the corporation willing to work with my nonprofit to optimize the cause marketing campaign so it’s authentic, transparent and positively impacts both of our brands?

7) Will the use of our brand in this campaign tarnish its use in the eyes of a majority of stakeholders?

8) If there are too many negatives, does it make more sense to simply ask for a check or walk away from the deal altogether?

Which questions would you add as guidance to nonprofits considering cause marketing partnerships?



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    From @geoffliving: Dancing with the Devil: Cause Marketing for Nonprofits:
    I’ve read the many posts on the Komen/… [link to post]

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  • Nice post, Geoff. Nice drawing skills on the Colonel. Remind me not to never piss you off. :)

    First, I think you are absolutely right about the lion’s share of the blame being in Komen’s corner. They approved the deal when they shouldn’t have. I also applaud KFC’s Rick Maynard for posting twice on my site explaining KFC’s position. Still no response from Komen.

    Second, I would argue that a npo’s mission is to raise money TO affect change. But stained money will lead to stunted change, as Komen will learn.

    Third, and I’m speaking especially to small nonprofits out there, there is a place for the quick and easy transactional cause marketing program. They’re easy, fun and raise good money. I do them all the time and they are the second best thing to a long-term partnership. But there is no place for any type of cause marketing program that is wrong or insincere.


  • Thanks, Joe. I defer to your excellent cause marketing skills. I particularly agree with the need to affect change, not raise money. What’s the NP mission? How does this help that? Where’s the theory of change? All important Qs.

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    Dancing with the Devil: Cause Marketing for Nonprofits | Geoff … [link to post]

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  • Nice job Geoff. It’s a tough issue but as I see it, there are many potential partners out there and an org’s choice of partner — as sponsor, team member or cause marketing affiliate says a lot about that organization.

    Also appreciate the set of standards for choosing and reviewing corporate partners. Articulating such standards is a must-review before making such a deal.

    Off to KFC,

  • I always enjoy reading quality articles by an individual who is definately knowledgeable on their chosen subject. I’ll be following this post with much interest. Keep up the good work, I will be back

  • Right on. I do think that both are to blame. Each in their own way. Would add that Komen sold out on their values. This is a GOOD example of why companies and npo’s should consult with cause marketing professionals/experts. That investment alone would save both parties money and botched cause marekting campaign & brand issues.

  • Thanks for this post, Geoff. It is a truly offensive and harmful alliance. Breast Cancer Action’s “What the Cluck?” campaign is calling out KFC and Susan G. Komen for the Cure on this pinkwashing partnership. Over 1,000 people from all over the country have written to them to denounce this pinkwashing. You can find the campaign here: http://www.thinkbeforeyoupink.org.

  • Komen should have had a bit more foresight, don’t you think? It would have been simple enough to choose a healthy option or better yet, create a “Komen endorsed” meal that included healthy options. They could have a significant portion of the proceeds goto Komen and have it be of benefit to both by giving money where it is needed while kicking off healthier options at a notoriously unhealthy establishment.

    In the long run, however, you will not have any kind of fallout and people will act and think as they always have.

  • For the life of me, I honestly can’t see how a deal such as this made it beyond the “concept” stage. Seriously, didn’t both Komen and KFC anticipate PR backlash for all the obvious reasons (you stated above)? As a PR practitioner, this partnership makes absolutely no sense in the first place – it is not an appropriate match for anyone. Secondly, Komen, in my opinion, is battling “pink fatigue” and needs to be making extremely strategically sound decisions regarding its mission and reputation. Pink KFC buckets certainly don’t fit that bill.

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  • I agree with you Geoff that it’s really Koman that made the error here, any partnerships with the industrial junk food complex is a terrible idea for any health related charity. To be quite honest I think most charities don’t look deeply enough at the systemic problems that proliferate problems. Not only should Koman avoid partnering with junk food providers, they should be at the forefront of food reform. Everyone in this country supports junk food with their taxes through agricultural subsidies that make fast food and soda artificially cheap.

  • Fried chicken does not cause breast cancer. Fatty foods do not cause breast cancer. Obesity is a predictive factor. Fried chicken and fatty foods do not cause obesity, either.


    With all due respect, Geoff, your logic is just skewed and mistaken on this one. You’re blinded by corporate cynicism and mistrust. KFC can write a straight check or tie it to sales, they still have to sell product to make the donation. Why hate them for wanting to help eradicate a horrible disease. You can make money AND do good and not be evil.

    Back to the main point that has you off on the wrong path:

    If I die of a heart attack tomorrow, it’s not Wendy’s fault. It’s not Little Debbie’s fault. It’s not Maker’s Mark’s fault. It’s mine.

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  • @JasonFalls From the linked to Komen site: “After menopause, however, being overweight increases the risk by 30 to 60 percent [113-115].”

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