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  • Writer's pictureTeri O'Connor

Cause Marketing: Corporate Social Responsibility and Nonprofit Partnerships

As more and more corporations are seeking to build corporate responsibility into their organizational practices and branding strategies, it has become increasing difficult for even the most discerning consumer to see through the public relations hype. However, there may be a unique opportunity for nonprofits to develop relationships with corporations that have strongly developed missions of community engagement, and positive reputations within the community. According to Arnett, Fritz, and Bell, “No organization is ethically neutral; communicative practices announce daily a given understanding of what is good and what is not good within a given organizational structure”, so understanding the core values of a corporation, both spoken and unspoken, is critical for nonprofits seeking to develop strategic corporate partnerships.

Communication then becomes the vehicle for identifying stakeholders, developing community memory, and creating a collective corporate identity for good. This is not simply a tagline or promotional strategy, but a belief system nurtured with intentional care and authentic interactions. “Organizational responsibility argues more generally that organizations are members of society and such membership carries an additional set of obligations” than just doing business or making a profit (Seeger). Cause marketing has become a way for corporate entities within a community to promote themselves as advocates for doing good.

This is consistent with Seeger’s belief that as an organization chooses whether or not to focus on social responsibility. The CEO or founder will usually direct the course of engagement or the cause that the organization wishes to support. This means that nonprofit leaders seeking corporate partnership opportunities must network in places where corporate and business leaders are more likely to convene, such as the local chamber of commerce or the rotary club. These efforts are directed on a secondary priority of making a positive difference in local communities rather than on the primary business focus of making a profit. It is best if this social direction has a natural tie back to the mission of the organization. “The larger social domain in which organizations support good causes is complex and dynamic with many diverse interests” (Seeger).

Competing Interests

Some opponents of the shift toward greater corporate responsibility claim that it is more about the image of the organization than about the public good. Some have viewed the role of social responsibility by organizations as self-serving to curry favor with potential customers and community leaders, while others have accused organizational leaders of promoting a specific political or moral agenda. This slippery slope between building societal trust through engaging in noble causes or being viewed with distrust due to propaganda and perceived hidden corporate agendas, has influenced some organizations to temper their cause related promotions. “Many organizational ethicists have abandoned the concept of responsibility in favor of a concept of organizational responsiveness” (Seeger).

Organizational responsiveness, according to Seeger is a more neutral term, which considers how well an organization can respond to the current needs of society or a local community, rather than how well it sets its own course of societal engagement. For example, an organization that prides itself on being environmentally responsible, might invest in recycling and using recycled materials. However, an organization that is focused on being responsive might have resources set aside, or help raise funds for reforesting efforts after a fire in their region that impacts natural reserves. While these two efforts are not mutually exclusive, the first is a static agenda determined by the organization, while the second is a dedication to being an active participant in the life and welfare of the community. “These efforts allow the organization to adapt to social values and problems in a dynamic fashion” (Seeger).

According to Arnett et al it is the negotiation of competing goods that adds to the life and vitality of a corporation. Without this dynamic tension an organization “loses its vitality and declines because of smugness of mission or utter disrespect for the organization, with both actions taking the future of the organization for granted” (Arnett). According to Johnson (Johnson),“many organizations are building Corporate Social Reasonability (CSR) into their DNA…Studies reveal that engaging in social responsibility efforts improve a firm’s reputation while increasing customer loyalty and ratings of its products”(Johnson).

This shift and commitment to being responsive in doing good provides unique opportunities for corporations and nonprofits to develop strategic partnerships that provide specific awareness of needs within their shared community. Also the funds for cause marketing are usually allocated to the marketing department rather than to the corporate foundation, so even if the corporate foundation has already apportioned their nonprofit grant funding for the year, the marketing department may still have funds to put toward a joint community effort.

While social responsibility is a noble investment of corporate time and resources, it is important for leaders to actively engage in balancing competing stakeholder priorities. It is also important for nonprofit partners to recognize and appreciate this tension of competing priorities. The goal for each is to be valued members of the community and to make a difference where they live, so that both can truly say that they are doing the most good. 


Arnett, R.C., Fritz, J.M.H., and Bell, L.M. (2009). Organizational communication ethics: Community of memory and dwelling. Communication ethics literacy: Dialogue and difference. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Johnson, C. E. (2011). Ethical decision making and behavior. Meeting the ethical challenges of leadership: Casting light or shadow. Sage. (p. 235-246).

O’Connor, Teri (2016). Social responsibility and corporate ethics. Gonzaga University. COML 597

Seeger, M. W. (1997). Ethics and organizational communication. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

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