Cause Competitiveness: Keep Your Eye On The Prize

Who's Getting Off First?


by Estrella Rosenberg & Geoff Livingston

If the last two marathon weeks of cause-related conferences are any indication, competition isn’t just something the for profit sector is thinking about – the cause community is too. How do we compete for market share? How do we compete for visibility? How do we compete for more money? Much has been said about competitiveness in the for profit sector, but what is the right role of competition in causes? Is there a right role?

Some would have full on competition, while others would have singular causes or coalitions within each sector. Are either of these right? They both are in a way. Competitive spirit definitely has its place: Finding the fastest, most efficient, most impactful way to resolve the problem the cause addresses.

Non-profits are not in business to make money. They are a business to be sure, but unlike a for-profit, which seeks to dominate markets and yield profits, a cause or social enterprise seeks to provide a solution. When a for-profit business is successful, it keeps its doors open for years and expands and keeps looking for more market share. When a non-profit is successful it should close its doors because its business – or mission – has been completed.

Are you competing just to raise the most money? Competing in the sense that a cause seeks to beat out its competition helps no one. It actually hurts the cause space by creating distractions and wasted resources.

Consider Komen for the Cure’s use of $1 million spent to legally enforce its rights to term “for the Cure.” How does that help anyone resolve health or larger issues? Worse, last year during The Cause Marketing Forum, Komen for the Cure proclaimed that it was their mission to reclaim the pink ribbon from other non-profits in the breast cancer space – organizations that they themselves support with grants! Imagine if that money and energy went towards finding the most innovative way to discover the most impactful solutions in breast cancer?

Competing to be the first to the finish line with the same approach as ten other organizations in your cause space isn’t the right kind of competition either. Wealthy founders and well meaning activists who think they can do it better without any unique theory of change are creating distractions too and just making more choices for donors, often paralyzing them. Yet another voice with nothing new to add creates a longer path to the answer.

The ability to see the problem and a unique answer to it (or a part of it) is at the heart of social entrepreneurship. Innovation means finding better faster ways to provide answers. In essence, this is the Ashoka model of social entrepreneurship where a changemaker seizes on a unique approach to a problem and deploys ambitious actions for wide-scale change.

For these social entrepreneurs, and for forward thinking non-profits, competition means cooperating with other organizations within the same space when they have to because they have their eye on the prize: an answer to whatever problem they’re trying to solve. That doesn’t necessarily mean sharing resources, but it does acknowledge that everyone is trying to reach the same end goal. Forming coalitions and cause verticals can have great impact if each organization is working on their own piece of the puzzle.

Ultimately, causes should want to end their business by resolving their problem. They shouldn’t want to be the organization who uses social media the most cleverly. They shouldn’t want to be the organization that raised the most money at their annual event. They should want to shudder their doors. Period.

What kind of cause are you? Are you competing to make change or just competing?


Finger-Lickin Failure: Susan G. Komen’s Stance on “Buckets For The Cure” at Cause Marketing Forum

This post is a bit of a departure for me. I generally give examples of how my non-profits succeed and fail in our various efforts (like my guest posts on our #100X100 campaign for Chronicle of Philanthropy and Community Organizer 2.0 this week) that I hope you’ll be able to apply to your own work in the non-profit sphere.

I also blog about the varied conferences I attend to report the most useful things I learned while there and how I’m using that new knowledge in my own organizations (like my posts on what I learned from Chris Brogan and Steve Farber at SOBCon) hoping it will inspire you to extrapolate something you can use to enhance yours.

This post, on the other hand is an out and out criticism of a large national non-profit’s response to a cause marketing relationship that was considered a debacle by many. I’m speaking about the Susan G. Komen/KFC Buckets For The Cure campaign in which 50 cents from every bucket was donated to Susan G. Komen with the intention of making the single largest donation to a breast cancer organization in history.

If you aren’t aware of what the controversy is about read these great posts by Joe Waters, Nancy Schwartz and Scott Henderson before you go on. The sheer number of comments on all of these posts is a hint at how many people agree this was not a sound decision on the part of Komen. In my comments on posts about this mess I note my displeasure that an organization that seeks to promote women’s health would partner with a fast food restaurant whose fatty foods contribute to obesity, responsible for 20% of cancer-related death in women according to

This past week I attended Cause Marketing Forum. One of the panel discussions entitled “Where’s the Nonprofit” included Karen White, Director of Corporate Relations for Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Now, I’m a peace and love kind of girl and that’s part of why this post is such a departure for me. I like to learn from other people’s mistakes but I try not to judge them. We all make them. Why not use them to do better next time?

The reason I’m doing so here stems from the fact that this took place at a conference. This wasn’t a public forum. This was a gathering of peers who were specifically looking to assess stories of both failure and success for insight that would be relevant to their own organizations. That’s what Komen should have delivered – an opportunity for all of us to learn what not to do when considering a cause marketing partnership.

Instead what we got was a shamefully shameless defense of their decision.  When Karen White began her part of the panel she acknowledged the elephant in the room by uncomfortably joking that she should have come with buckets of chicken for all of us. I think I speak for the entire audience when I say I hoped that was a segue into her thoughts on this partnership. No such luck. She went on to continue her talk which I will not describe as it was largely irrelevant to the matter at hand.

When the panel was over and the questions from the audience were displayed the only one that appeared was an inquiry of her thoughts on KFC. Although she clearly didn’t want to talk about it everyone else there wanted to hear about it. Instead of using this opportunity to talk about how they were learning from it to change the ways they assess future potential cause marketing relationships she spun defense after defense.

Most amusing was the first – she wanted to point out that the 50 cents was earned when the franchisee bought the bucket, not when the customer ordered it. She implied that a customer could have easily bought a bucket full of mashed potatoes. Right….and we were all born yesterday. She went on to describe how the pros and cons of this partnership were weighed at every level, down to Board Members and the Founder of Komen.

She explained that 20% of KFC’s 5000+ locations were in areas where they had no affiliates or presence and the ability to reach these places was the primary factor in their decision. She shared that the Buckets For The Cure website didn’t generate many additional donations but that with 2 1/2 million views it spread significant education and awareness. She closed by saying they’re proud of the partnership with KFC and that she “stands behind it any day of the week.”

The website whose views she is so proud of includes this among its “Tips For A Healthy You” :

“Susan G. Komen for the Cure recommends that you…..make healthy lifestyle choices and maintain a healthy weight”

They stand behind the hypocrisy of educating people to make healthy choices via a brand (I mean no disrespect to KFC here, this is true of all fast-food restaurants) that is antithetic to making healthy choices?

I leave you to your own opinion of how this situation was handled but I was wildly disappointed she didn’t just fess up to having made a mistake. The rest of us need examples of veterans in the field who lead by learning from their failures and righting the course. As insiders we do not need to be cause-washed. In both a personal and professional capacity I have lost my respect for an organization that now seems more focused on money than mission.