What Your Startup Brings to the Table: A Social Mission With Few Resources

If you’re running a small startup, you’re tight on resources and hungry for any competitive advantage you can find–a broader audience, high-quality employees, brand differentiation, media attention and evangelizing customers.  I won’t spend time telling you that social mission programs like cause marketing and employee volunteer programs can yield all this.  That you know. But did you know that you don’t have to wait until your business is bigger and richer to create and benefit from social responsibility?

This post is for the passionate, agile, small-fry startups and entrepreneurs. You’re in business because you see a better way to do things, and I want to help you do it even better.

I often hear this question from entrepreneurs:

“What can my small company offer nonprofits?”

Nonprofits have three main motivtaions to partner with a business: funding, visibility/branding and expansion of service delivery.  Businesses and nonprofits typically team-up for cause marketing or employee volunteer programs, sponsorships or events.

What Your Startup Can Offer Nonprofits

  • A smaller, local nonprofit will put in more effort to make the partnership succeed (they don’t have the GEs and FedExs lined up). This works in reverse too.  The organization knows you’re not there because you have a public image to polish, and that you don’t have resources to waste pushing ideas through the bureaucratic sausage grinder.  You’re there on your own volition because you see value in the nonprofit (whether it’s the specific cause it supports, the community it works in or its reputation).
  • Get creative about what your company can bring to your parter. Maybe it’s funds through a typical cause marketing program, maybe it’s an employee volunteer program that targets the community you’re in. But maybe it’s another set of resources like space (Applebee’s opened up 72 restaurants through several states to nonprofit groups on weekend mornings, allowing them to host pancake breakfast fundraisers). Maybe it’s skills. Can you help your partner use social media more effectively or optimize their website for search engines?  Can you introduce them to a new audience through your website, services and materials?  Your company has a different skill set than the nonprofit, which can be leveraged to help them.

Who You Should Partner With

  • Partner with a nonprofit in your community that’s comparable in size.  Cause marketing expert Joe Waters reminds us that “You don’t have to be Goliaths like General Mills or Nike to leverage cause marketing. It’s a matter of scale. Small and mid-sized businesses should work with non-profit partners that match their scale to develop programs that fit their existing budget and resources.” Be completely upfront about what value you can and can’t bring to the partnership and why you’re interested in supporting this particular nonprofit’s work.

What To Do With Your Partner

  • Test out micro campaigns. This is a tremendous asset.  Larger companies are sometimes criticized for not giving enough money when they run smaller cause marketing campaigns to test out a new partner or idea.  Expecations are lower for smaller businesses. You can run several shorter programs to see what works best for your objectives and your partner’s and what resonates most with customers.
  • Partnerships often reach their potential in their second or third year. By starting small, you can build a relationship with the nonprofit and test out what works so when you grow your audiences and have more resources to bear, you’ll have programs that you know work.
  • Work with your partner to shape the story you want to tell and be creative.  What would get people’s and the media’s attention?  A basketball donation to the local youth center won’t cut it, but coaching and setting up a tournament that the community can participate in, likely will.
  • I’ve already taken you off the hook for building programs that require a lot of resources and have encouraged you to test out smaller campaigns, but it’s worth stressing again that it’s okay to start small.

I did some work with a three-person company that was run out of the home of two of the co-founders. It was important to the founders that their company stood for something and that it was enjoyable.  They created a social mission that gave the business a larger purpose and a market identity.

From launch, the founders decided to donate one yoga class to an at-risk child for every product (mid-priced jewelry) purchased. They found a local nonprofit that brought yoga into urban public schools to partner with. Then they visited several schools in neighborhoods in their community and brought the principals into their vision. The donations from each piece of jewelry went directly to the nonprofit and were budgeted for specific classes at the participating schools. The founders remained involved, visiting the classes and documenting how yoga was altering the students’ lives. The program helped brand the company and give it a mission that the public could evangelize and support.

Thanks to a reader for encouraging this post. Was it helpful? What did it leave you still wondering about? I relay on feedback from readers like you to make my work stronger and more relevant to your business.

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  1. Bryan V April 16, 2010 at 6:07 pm #

    Excellent post Olivia. This was really helpful. As a small business (currently 2.5 people), we’re just beginning to craft our cause marketing strategy. You definitely provided a useful toolkit for us to consider. I think your suggestion of focusing local makes a lot of sense. We’re starting to pull together a list of local organizations that might make good potential partners and hopefully we’ll be able to identify some real tangible value that we can help to deliver. Thanks so much for taking the time to write about this. Very much appreciated. I’ll let you know how our early efforts pan out. Bryan