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Six Questions Credit Unions Should Ask When Selecting a Cause Marketing Partner

Credit unions have long been known for their history of community service, which typically involves donating money or employee time to a local charity. But cause marketing is different — it’s a two-way street. Charities are not passive beneficiaries of your generosity, and they expect more from your partnership than a check.

Two businessman connecting puzzle pieces togeter

A cause marketing partnership is a marriage, of sorts, and like any marriage, its health depends on careful selection, ongoing communication, and a shared vision for success. If you don’t ask the right questions early on, your partnership could easily unravel along the way, undermining your good intentions and potentially damaging your brand.

Here are six key questions to ask when seeking your ideal cause-marketing mate:

1. Does the partner align with our cause and brand?

The critical first step in any cause marketing campaign, is of course, agreeing on a cause. Ideally this should be a cause that ignites passion amongst your employees, aligns with your brand, resonates with your members, and helps differentiate you from other financial institutions. (For more on choosing a cause, see our Definitive Guide to Cause Marketing.)

The next step is “finding your mate.” Like any successful relationship, you want chemistry. Perhaps the cause is perfectly aligned, but your target markets are different. You want a partner that not only has a track record of success, but that speaks a language that will resonate with your members.

Citibike by water
Image courtesy of Motivate

Keep in mind that cause marketing partners are often nonprofits, but they don’t have to be. For instance, in 2013 Citibank partnered with Motivate, a global for-profit leader in the bikeshare industry, to create New York’s bikeshare program, Citibike.

2. What is the goal of the partnership and how will it be measured?

It’s all well and good to say you’re “supporting local youth,” but what exactly does that mean? How are you defining success and measuring impact?

Woodlands Bank’s “Get Local, Give Local, Go Local" campaign
Image courtesy of Woodlands Bank

As part of Pennsylvania-based Woodlands Bank’s “Get Local, Give Local, Go Local” campaign, the bank identified four local nonprofits representing four different areas of need in the community: shelter, food, youth development and job readiness. Members who opened a new account or engaged with Woodlands’ Facebook page were able to direct a donation of their choice on the bank’s behalf. Each member could choose between having the bank donate 20 meals to a local food bank; one night of care, food and shelter for a displaced family of four; one interview-ready business outfit; or eight hours of extracurricular activity for a child.

From the outset, the campaign was set up in such a way that it could be easily measured, and its impact could be easily communicated. According to The Financial Brand, “More than 9,500 meals, 100 nights of shelter, 90 outfits and 1,000 hours of activities were generated during the three-month awareness campaign.” Ultimately, Woodlands Bank and its nonprofit partners were not only able to gauge success, but they had a story to tell that was far more meaningful than a monetary donation.

It’s absolutely critical to communicate with your partner about your goals and metrics for success before you launch your campaign. How will your constituents contribute to the campaign, how will their contributions be tracked, and how will the data you track translate into a meaningful story of impact?

An equally important question is who is doing the tracking? Will you use a third-party tool that both partners can access, or designate the job to an in-house Excel whiz?

Make sure you’re collecting the right data, and that you have a process in place for collecting this data. The last thing you want to do is find yourself mid-campaign without the numbers you need to tell your impact story.

3. What is the timeframe?

Are you saying “I do” till death do you part? Or is the partnership focused around a one-time event? Either way, the initial timeframe has to be clear even if you end up extending or repeating the campaign.

solar-panel-array-power-sun-electricity-159397If cause marketing is new for your credit union, it may be wise to start small, measure success, then repeat, even if subsequent campaigns involve different partners. For instance, in 2014, Colorado-based Alpine Bank purchased 82 solar panels in partnership with Clean Energy Collective to create a “community solar garden” for local low-income families struggling with their utility bills. This purchase helped to subsidize utility costs for 20 low-income families. After the bank’s initial campaign, they went on to invest $896,480 in 1,092 solar panels from five different community solar projects.

4. What are each partner’s roles and responsibilities, and how do you each stand to benefit?

You both have an active role to play, and it’s best to define those roles from the outset. How are each of you promoting the campaign? Who is collecting donations? Who is talking to the press?

Similarly, you both stand to benefit, and those benefits need to be clearly defined. If the benefits are lopsided–for example, if your partner is doing a lot of heavy lifting that is generating positive PR for your credit union but not helping them meaningfully further their mission–you are unlikely to part ways feeling mutually warm and fuzzy about the partnership.

It’s not only a good idea to get these roles, responsibilities, and benefits in writing, but to include them in a signed and legally binding contract. This process will help you gain clarity on the parameters of the partnership, troubleshoot potential misunderstandings and miscommunications in advance, and provide you with a clear framework to refer back to should unanticipated issues arise.

5. How will the partnership be promoted to the general public?

Marketing planningOf course, any marketing campaign needs a marketing plan, and ideally both partners will work to implement it. You want to increase good will amongst your existing membership base, but a successful cause marketing campaign will ideally help you attract new members by giving you an opportunity to tell your story to a new audience. Make sure your promotion plan leverages your partner’s network and press contacts as well. You may even want to allocate marketing dollars for your partner, as many local nonprofits have little in the way of a marketing budget.

For some creative marketing ideas, see Step #5 in our Definitive Guide to Credit Union Marketing.

6. What if the partnership doesn’t work out?

It’s not you, it’s me! Whatever the reason, sometimes partnerships go awry. Be prepared to apologize, whether it’s to your partner, to your members, or to the public at large.

Buckets for the CureAfter the huge public outcry about the Buckets for the Cure partnership between KFC and Susan G. Komen, nonprofit marketing expert Nancy E. Schwartz succinctly summed up effective and ineffective responses to the crisis at hand:

Getting into a mess happens for all of us from time to time, as individuals and as organizations. But once you’re there, it’s critical to salvage your organization’s brand by strategically navigating the situation, a.k.a. crisis communications.

Within three hours of my blog post on the deal, KFC spokesperson Rick Maynard added his comment. Maynard summarized KFC’s perspective in a clear and respectful way, opening up the dialogue. That’s good crisis communications.

What about Komen’s response? Dead silence. No comments on any blogs or stories online as of two weeks after… Silence on its Twitter feed, Facebook page and website; and those of its affiliates.

Schwartz goes on to say, “In remaining largely silent… Komen has opened up a huge vacuum for critics… to define its actions. You never want this to happen.”

Young professionals in conversationSo speak up, and be transparent about what went wrong and what you learned from the experience. Your members, and the general public, will be much more likely to engage in a subsequent cause marketing campaign if they understand what the missteps were and how you’ll avoid them in the future.

With the right cause marketing partner, you can not only make a measurable impact on your community, but you can also effectively leverage your respective networks and harness the power of positive PR to grow and differentiate both your brands. Take the time to ask the right questions up front, and you’ll avoid wasting time with an unhappy partner. You may even luck out and find the perfect long-term marketing mate.