Communication Currents

Doing Good by Communicating Well

June 1, 2010
Organizational Communication

Partnerships between corporate and nonprofit entities are producing powerhouse messages that simultaneously reach into consumers' hearts and wallets. Product packaging and corporate messages, dressed up in the promise of a better tomorrow, are on display almost everywhere Americans shop, play, and work. For example, consumers can drink from a Diet Coke can that features the American Heart Association's little red dress. Movie theater cashiers can accept contributions to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital as they ply moviegoers with popcorn, candy, and soda. Even grocery aisles sing of a friendlier world with Starbucks' and Green Mountain Coffee's fair-trade certification.

Increased revenue for nonprofits and corporations isn't the only benefit of these highly public relationships. Corporations benefit as they gain greater credibility, and nonprofits secure far-reaching exposure. When a corporation touts its commitment to a nonprofit cause, it associates its brand with the greater good and calls attention to itself as a good citizen. For example, Campbell's Soup Company has linked its iconic brand to Go Red for Women. The relationship enhances the legitimacy of both partners through a massive communication campaign. In 2008, the American Heart Association's campaign was viewed 800 million times because of Campbell's support. This kind of strategic communication offers stakeholders a clear message: The Campbell's corporation values women and their health.

The public learns about these partnerships in a variety of ways. Walmart's Acres for America campaign, which features a partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, uses multimedia advertising. Cause-marketing, defined as marketing of social issues through the combined efforts of nonprofits and corporations, provides another vehicle for publicizing these relationships. Nonprofit certification programs (e.g., Rainforest Alliance), where a nonprofit organization certifies the environmental or social standards of a company, creates high-octane social messages for corporations. Finally, interactive websites (e.g., Chevron) engage publics to join the cause by contributing stories, photos, and sometimes dollars (e.g., KFC's buckets for a cure).

Our research of U.S. Fortune 500 corporations' nonprofit relationships revealed three trends: Corporations usually tout only a few of their nonprofit relationships; companies in the same industry typically support similar causes; and some social issues are far more popular in corporate communication than others.

The corporate communication trend is to spotlight five or fewer nonprofit partners. Even when an entity supports more social causes or organizations, it only publicly embraces a handful of them. As a result of this selection, some nonprofits and their social issues receive relatively little public support, even though their social causes have important impacts.

Corporations in some industries partner with more nonprofits than others. For example, specialty retailer organizations (e.g., The Limited Brands) and commercial-banking companies (e.g., Chase) support more nonprofits than corporations in other industries. Companies in these two industries have similar products and consumer profiles as their competitors; our research suggests that numerous partnerships offer a competitive advantage in these industries. By embracing an assortment of nonprofit partners, corporations can appeal to a variety of stakeholder groups.

Regardless of industry, however, most corporations only advertise one nonprofit partner per social issue. For example, Lowe's has limited its partnerships for building affordable housing to Habitat for Humanity. Corporations tout only the nonprofit partnerships that will be the most meaningful to the greatest number of their stakeholders.

Corporations in the same industry support similar causes through different nonprofit entities. For example, the following electric and gas utilities promote environmental conservation through a variety of partners. Exelon is the largest owner/operator of nuclear power plants in the U.S. It reports ongoing relationships with the Carbon Disclosure Project, Resources for the Future, and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. First Energy is the nation's fifth-largest investor-owned electric system. First Energy reports relationships with Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. DTE Energy is a nationwide provider of energy. It reports donating to the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Across industries, corporations most frequently communicate about partnerships with nonprofits that support a variety of causes, such as the United Way. Other popular causes include child welfare (e.g., Boys & Girls Club), environmental conservation (e.g., Peregrine Fund, Inc.), hospitals, corporate foundations (e.g., DuPont Community Fund) and disaster relief. By comparison, nonprofits that focus on the elderly and violence prevention receive little attention in corporate messaging.

The message is clear: Corporation X cares about Social Issue Z and, thus, wants to make the world a better place. Consumers, inundated with corporate/nonprofit messaging, should consider why an organization wants to spotlight a particular cause. Furthermore, consumers should think about which social issues aren't being included in these nationwide messaging efforts. For example, when confronted with a pink item, consumers should consider what a company stands to gain, who its nonprofit partners are, and what else might be supported with that money.

About the author (s)

Michelle Shumate

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Assistant Professor

Amy O'Connor

North Dakota State University

Associate Professor