For every person who says cause marketing and corporate philanthropy are “feel-good exercise[s], generating little value for a company’s shareholders” like Marc Gunther at Fortune, there is another saying “Executives tempted to cut back on their corporate philanthropy in a slowing economy should think again” like Rachel Cohen at Forbes.com.

With hard economic times, the debate about the merit of supporting nonprofits in any capacity is front and center for corporations, foundations, individual donors and the nonprofits that benefit from them. These days it feels like every other story in the news is about how to save at the pumps or cut costs during a recession. It is during times like this, when nonprofits begin to question their donor strategy, that it’s useful to remember what provokes engagement in a cause in the first place.  A number of these points were highlighted at the Cause Marketing Forum annual conference which I attended in May. The bottom line: no matter the state of the economy, humans are almost uniformly consistent.  Nonprofits would do well to remember these timeless nuggets about consumer behavior.

  1. We want control but also “easy” choices: Though humans want maximum control over their choices, humans also want “no brainer” choices and mental shortcuts. Nonprofits need to make the choice to pick them or stay on their website as easy as possible by focusing options, providing clear positive associations with taking action and making the issues relevant by establishing familiarity and similarity. People do what they like and don’t want to feel like they’re giving anything up.
  2. We all have a self-centered consciousness: If the green revolution sweeping the country is any indication, more and more consumers want to live – and shop – by their values, but not without careful consideration about the trade-offs. Though consumers want to feel good about their choices, they still want low cost and high quality products. Nonprofits need to connect the dots between the supporter’s values and make them feel good about what they are “purchasing” by clearly showing how it fulfills their own needs.
  3. We want perfect imperfection: There’s a fine line between amateur and professional and nonprofits need to find it. As Raphael Bemporad of BBMG highlighted, “cause consumers” don’t expect the organizations they support to be perfect but they do expect transparency and authenticity. It’s up to nonprofits to embrace web 2.0 tools and social networks to build trust relationships and allow consumers to feel co-ownership in their mission. The nonprofits that successfully embrace being perfectly imperfect will see greater loyalty from their supporters and maximum success online.
  4. We are for profit and pro nonprofit: Just like there is a self-centered consciousness, there is also a hybrid organization model that consumers fit into. The middle ground between for profit and not for profit, dubbed “for benefit” or the fourth sector, is allowing for the best of both worlds. Greyston Bakery out of Yonkers, NY is a fine example of the trend towards the middle. Their slogan is “We don’t hire people to bake brownies; we bake brownies to hire people.” Nonprofits need to consider this trend as they develop their online programs and think about the competition for supporter attention.
  5. We like numbers but we act on stories: Numbers give us the logical rationale we need to act but stories touch us on an emotional level. Stacie Bright from Unilever spoke about the Dove Campaign and interestingly shared with us that to sell their executives on doing the Real Beauty campaign, they interviewed the executives’ kids. Though the numbers about how the campaign would impact sales were critical, the emotional connection was the nail in the coffin. Nonprofits need to follow this model for selling to both internal and external stakeholders.