Episode aired May 13, 2020: Cause Marketing

Joe Waters is THE cause marketing expert. He’s the author of 2 books on the subject and writes the leading newsletter on the topic. In this episode, Joe discusses¬†

  • why cause marketing is a “win win, work work” proposition
  • what 3 things your nonprofit has to have ready in advance before approaching a corporation about a partnership
  • where the corporate money is
  • why corporate partnerships fail and
  • his love of gardening.

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.


Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. Today I’m thrilled to have one of my favorite people in the world, Joe Waters, as my guest. Joe how you doing today?

Joe: How you doing buddy? Thanks so much for having me on.

Ephraim: I’m doing fine. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers. Joe Waters has been working at the intersection of business, philanthropy and marketing for 25 years. He writes one of the web’s leading cause marketing blogs and is the author of two books on the subject. Joe is a sought-after speaker on corporate partnerships, cause marketing sponsorship and social media. He has written for many publications including Forbes, Fast Company,, Nonprofit Quarterly, Chronicle of Philanthropy and Healthcare Philanthropy Journal. Joe has been quoted in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Nonprofit Times. Joe lives in Massachusetts, has a wicked smaht Boston accent and is obviously a Red Sox fan.

Joe is THE expert on the topic of today’s episode, cause marketing. Let’s dive right in. Joe, how do you define cause marketing and why do you use that specific definition?

Joe: You know my definition really goes back to one of the first cause marketing partnerships between American Express and the Statue of Liberty Foundation, back in around 1983 or so. And what I define it as is a partnership between a nonprofit and a for-profit, for mutual profit. So they generally, partnerships are what I call “win-win” and “work work.” They both benefit. Both partners benefit from the relationship. But they’re also work, right? They have to. It’s not just about a nonprofit picking up a check and it’s not just about a company giving a check. It’s about a nonprofit and a for-profit really working together closely. Now as you can probably imagine, a lot of people come up with a term cause marketing. A lot of it can apply to just the marketing of causes. But I think of it specifically as a nonprofit and for-profit partnership.

Ephraim: Fantastic. How are corporate partnerships different from other forms of funding, such as foundations?

Joe: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And you know in some ways you know a lot of people associate corporate giving as a form of foundation giving, because you can get corporate grants. In general though what’s different is that with cause marketing, you’re generally working with the company’s customers and/or their employees. So while corporate grants target a company’s checkbook, I’ve often argued that the money’s not really in the company checkbook. It’s in the customer, in the employee.

So when I think of opportunities with companies, I think of it through the lens of: How can you give me access to your employees, your customers, so I can raise money from them? In a lot of ways it’s a form of individual giving on steroids because you’re going through a company. I like that, that’s good. What should a nonprofit be looking for or researching when deciding which businesses to approach?

You know, it’s interesting. When it comes to businesses that you should talk to, the first and most important ones are the ones you already know. It’s interesting you should bring up this point, because I often say that corporate partnerships are not so much discovered as they are detected. They’re already there. So what I encourage a lot of nonprofits to do is to look at their existing relationships with companies. Every individual that gives them money probably works for a company or owns a company. It can access those companies. They work with vendors, people they make money from. They can get those people as corporate partners. And then there are people that may be getting sponsorship dollars. Now sponsorship dollars is a little bit different because that’s a check from the company. But what happens is, in a lot of instances, you can change those partnerships to cause marketing partnerships and that’s what the real value is.

Ephraim: Amazing, okay. So let’s look at what I call the actionable item for today’s podcast: A nonprofit is considering approaching a business about a partnership. What three things must that nonprofit have ready in advance?

Joe: You know I think one of the most important things- and nonprofits are really challenged by this- is a value proposition for the business owner. Right? Or the businesspeople that they’re meeting with. I think it can be extremely powerful when a nonprofit goes in and instead of just focusing on themselves, they’re focusing on: Here’s how I can help you. I do this type of work with my nonprofit, CSR is very important to people right now. I can deliver a specific audience to you that’s valuable, that can help your organization make money. That is probably number one the most important thing that they can do.

The second thing that I would really think about is some real actionable ideas of things that they could do. So looking at the type of business they are, I would think about what type of fundraising programs they could do. Now think about that though too- that’s very different. A retailer is going to do different types of programs than an engineering company, right? You have to promote, you have to approach those two companies in two different ways.

The third thing that I think is important that every nonprofit should have is some way of measuring the success of these programs and really looking at like how are we gonna say that this was a success, not just for the nonprofit and money raised but also in other ways?  

Ephraim: Always look at the data and always present the data. What are the top two factors that cause corporate partnership failures?

Joe: You know I think a big thing too is a lack of relevancy with the nonprofit. So in a lot of instances what people are looking for, is they’re looking for some type of authentic connection with the business.

You know you can take an example like The North Face and the National Parks Foundation. North Face sells outdoor gear, generally associated with boating, parks and woods and stuff like that. That’s a great link for something like national parks. Whereas if you come in the North Face and you want to save schools, saving schools is a great thing but it’s not really relevant to the type of business they are. So I think in a lot of instances you have to find that connection. Now there’s an important point to be made there. In the sense if you do your research and you find out the CEO of that company is very interested in schools and working on behalf of schools to save those, that is an authentic connection. But on the surface when we begin, we have to look for that authenticity and relevancy from what the organization’s do. So that’s a really big thing, I think that you know that really kind of does that.

And then the second biggest thing too is I think in a lot of instances and this gets really tactical with people, is that when we meet with business owners, especially people private businesses, CEOs, Presidents of those organizations, we don’t read or understand those people enough to know the type of information that we have to present them. In a lot of instances I think there are three types of decision-makers: Thinkers, feelers and deferrers. Thinkers are analytical, feelers are story oriented and deferrers actually look to others to help them make the decision. I think one of the most important things a nonprofit can do is to figure out what type of decision-maker they’re dealing with, so they can give him or her the arguments, the persuasive information that they need to know what would make it effective.

Ephraim: Fantastic, it’s all about building those relationships right from the get-go.

Joe: That’s right. And being an effective communicator.

Ephraim: Bingo, yes! So we will move on to the lightning round so our audience can learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Joe: You know it was basically a job search, you know. Being out in 1993, just got out of Penn State graduate school, thought I was gonna do a PhD but I didn’t. Got out and was looking for a job and ended up in the nonprofit field and actually worked first for an organization that I had supported during the seventies and eighties, the Muscular Dystrophy Association. So it was a you know, kind of a strange way of kind of coming back home by going to work for them as their first job. But the basic answer: I needed a job.

Ephraim: Amazing. And here you are all these years later. So with all the years that you have experienced in the field, if you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Joe: I think it’s about marketing. The biggest thing I see that nonprofits are challenged by, is their lack of understanding of marketing and their lack of staff to help them with that issue. A lot of people ask me and I talk to a lot of people: Joe, why can’t nonprofits be as successful as businesses? Why can’t they position themselves in that way? And in a lot of instances my answer I think is very simple: It’s marketing, they don’t have marketing, they don’t use marketing. I think that’s a fundamental change that we’re gonna see in nonprofits moving forward, we’re gonna see an emphasis on marketing because it’s going to be very important that nonprofits grow powerful audiences for themselves, to be more effective, because there’s more competition than ever out there.

Ephraim: I cosign that last answer, for sure. Please tell us the best piece of advice that you ever received.

Joe: The best piece of advice I ever received that’s interesting to think about something like that. I’m trying to think of a great piece of advice that I’ve received. You know, one of the things I think that is really important especially as a nonprofit professional, is to be yourself. When you’re out there talking to people, you want to embrace your own personality. And I think there’s some types of a stereotype out there about what a nonprofit professional should look like. And what I really encourage people to be is to be themselves, to go out there and be themselves at their best and represent their organization in a powerful, effective way, that brings their own personality to bear for themselves and for the success of the organization. I think that can help them both as an individual and with their organization, because the ability to stand out was something that’s very important. Ya know as Oscar Wilde said: Don’t worry about everyone, everyone else is taken, be yourself.

Ephraim: Yes. How did you develop your love of gardening?

Joe: Well, you know I’m a very practical person. It’s interesting and I do love gardening a great deal almost as much as cause marketing as you know. But my interest in gardening really came down to a bad landscaper and I was very unhappy with his work in my yard and I said to myself: You know what? This is not brain surgery, this is information and I need to approach this. What I did was I just dug in, literally and figuratively and learned about gardening. Everything I had to do.

And I did… in the sense like, a lot of the things that we need to learn are not rocket science. They take time and I look to you so often Ephraim as my inspiration for that. Because every week I think you are trying to figure things out and I see you as very action-oriented. And I think gardening is the same way. But that being said since I’ve been doing gardening, I find it so therapeutic. I love being connected with the ground and it really has connected me too, in thinking about how great the world is that we live in and how great this earth is and how important it is to preserve it. And we can all do that by starting a garden.

Ephraim: I absolutely love that because I also not only gain inspiration but I enjoy seeing those pictures that you post.

Joe: Oh yes, I know you do.

Ephraim: Flowers and the plants and everything. You take very good care of your gahden, as you call it.

Joe: I do, I do. I’m very particular. And that’s the thing too and you know it kind of comes down to and it’s, you know you and I even run our own businesses. You know if you want something done right you got to do it yourself in a lot of instances and and that’s how I feel about my garden. I have people that help me in certain instances but I know enough so I can go out there and do my own thing. And you know – they have this wonderful thing in this world. It’s called Google and it is an amazing place to learn about all the things in your yard and how to grow them and with a little time energy and effort you can do it.

Ephraim: Amazing. Last question, we turn the tables. You ask me a question, a surprise question. I don’t know what it is in advance, so go ahead.

Joe: Alright. You know one of the things that I’ve noticed is that you have lost a lot of weight and you are really taking care of yourself better. And I won’t, you know, we’re all in different stages of self-care so I’m not gonna say that your health was worse at another time, but I do notice that you have been taking care of yourself. And I wanted to know what is your secret? And what moisturizer are you using? Because your skin is amazing.

Ephraim: There’s no moisturizer. That’s all natural. As far as the self-care, the truth is I can go to your gardening example. If you want to do something right you gotta do it yourself. I had to, at some point, about four years ago I looked at it and I said you know what? I want to hit the age of 50 and even beyond that. And I said here’s what I gotta do. I made some very very small changes to diet. Started exercising and walking every day, getting out for about an hour and a quarter every day with walking. And you make some simple changes and you see big results. So you know I learned what works for me because there’s lots of diets out there but you gotta know what works for you in particular and you just go with it and it’s sticking to it, which is not very easy. But yes, I’ve been able to do it.

Joe: Well in addition to being amazing you now look amazing. So it’s good now. You can really see the light in you now and I do think it’s giving you more energy for projects like this one, so I wanna commend you on your efforts, because it’s definitely working for you. And that skin! It’s amazing!

Ephraim: Joe, you know what? You’re my favorite guest on this podcast! Only giving me compliments. Thanks very very much for joining. I really really appreciate it, plenty of nuggets of wisdom for everyone in the audience to learn from. And go follow Joe online, subscribe to his newsletter. It’s the best one in the cause marketing world. I learn tons of things from his newsletter. Excellent content and Joe’s a really nice guy. Thanks very much for appearing on the podcast Joe. I appreciate it.

Joe: Thank you Ephraim, nice being here.

Ephraim: Have a good one.

Joe: You too buddy.

Ephraim: Alright bye.