woman on charity website
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Bruce Burch, an icon of the brand/nonprofit partnership movement, once said, “There is nothing in business today that provides as much economic and social benefit, on as many levels, to as many stakeholders, as a strategic partnership between any combination of the nonprofit, for-profit, education and government sectors when focused on the greater good. Nothing else comes even close.”

To paraphrase: When brands and nonprofits work together, everybody benefits.

Choosing a partner for collaboration typically happens at the executive level. If you work in marketing, you'll likely just receive an announcement of the partnership and be charged with coming up with a successful marketing campaign.

This is one of those times when sound digital policies can save you a lot of hassle and heartache. However, every partnership campaign is unique. There’s a difference between sponsoring a 5K, for example, and choosing a nonprofit for a long-term, mutually beneficial partnership. (Just as, for nonprofits, there’s a difference between working with a brand on a one-time project vs. building a more permanent relationship.)

So what does that mean when it comes to digital policies? While it’s a good idea to have a style guide on hand to share with any organization you work with, I don’t think it’s possible for digital policies to drill down to the detail level on how you’ll work with a brand or charity on a marketing campaign that has yet to be proposed. Your company may be willing to modify your logo colors to work with the Susan G. Komen foundation, for example, but not for a local scout troop’s fundraiser.

Therefore, your digital policies should include a step-by-step process for working with a brand/nonprofit to develop a mutually beneficial marketing campaign — a checklist, if you will. Instead of specifying every detail, your digital policy should include a list of things you need to consider, discuss and resolve when developing a coordinated marketing campaign. And this is true whether you’re the brand or the nonprofit.

Digital Policies: Laying the Ground Rules

The following general items should be on everyone's checklist, whether you're the brand or the nonprofit:

  • What is the nature of the partnership, and how should that be explained to consumers? Is the brand merely making a one-time donation, or committing to an ongoing partnership? Is the brand making a statement of support for a particular cause or issue?
  • Does either party have specific requirements about the verbiage to be used?
  • How do you want your organization named in marketing materials (Apple vs. Apple, Inc., for example)?
  • Do you want your logo and/or trademark included in all marketing materials? If so, provide your partner with a file of all approved variations of your logo.
  • Are you open to modifications to your logo in a way that complements the campaign’s color scheme? In that case, provide your partner with explicit guidelines on what types of modifications are allowed and which aren’t.
  • If your organization operates nationally or globally and is partnering with a local nonprofit, should marketing materials reference the entire organization or just the local branch/office?
  • What guidelines should you set for liking/sharing each other’s Tweets and posts?
  • Are there any privacy issues to be addressed (sharing photos of people served by the nonprofit — or their volunteers — for example)?
  • If you’re planning an ongoing, cause-based partnership, do you need new digital policies to ensure that future content reflects your commitment to the partnership?
  • For seasonal campaigns, what holiday terms will you use, and which will you avoid? Will your ads include the words “Merry Christmas,” for example, or the more general “Happy Holidays”? Is it important for both partners to use the same terms, or should each choose the terms that best resonate with their audience?
  • Will each partner market this campaign according to their existing targeting methods, channels, social media platforms, etc.? Or will they create a new plan specifically for the joint campaign? Or maybe both?
  • What about metrics? Will the campaign be measured according to each organization’s existing measurements, or should new measurements be identified just for the new campaign? If new measurements are needed, what should they be (an increase in donations, for instance)?
  • What about budgetary costs? Will each partner pay for their portion of the campaign and then split costs for shared initiatives? Or is paying for the marketing part of the brand’s support of the nonprofit?
  • What are the disclosure requirements for donations, especially if the brand is asking consumers to make donations through their website (a landing page that asks you to donate $5 to the nonprofit, for example)? Is the brand required to disclose how much of the nonprofit’s donations go to administrative costs rather than carrying out its stated purpose, for example? How much transparency is required — in both directions?
  • What are the tax implications of asking consumers to donate through the brand? And how should that be explained to consumers?
  • What other regulatory requirements come into play, and how can you make sure both you and your partner are in compliance? If the nonprofit solicits donations through a landing page that has your brand’s name on it, for example, are you responsible for the security of personal data entered on that page? Do you have an obligation to verify the nonprofit’s compliance with PCI-DSS standards?

This list is not exhaustive, so make sure to add any issues that are of particular importance to you.

It’s also a good idea to decide ahead of time which things are negotiable and which aren’t. Let’s face it: Sometimes it’s a matter of “the one who has the gold makes the rules.” If you’re a small nonprofit that lands a big sponsor, it’s probably not a great idea to make a stand on the colors you use for your subheads. On the other hand, certain regulatory concerns may be non-negotiable.

This works the other way around, too, of course. If you’re a large corporation partnering with a small nonprofit that’s immature when it comes to digital policies, you’ll want to make sure those gaps don’t put you at risk.

Related Article: Digital Policies Create Opportunities

'What Could Go Wrong?'

After you and your partner have hammered out all of those marketing campaign details, there’s one more question to ask (and it’s one far too many organizations have forgotten):

“What could go wrong?”

While you and your partner’s audiences may have a large degree of overlap, it’s extremely unlikely they’re exactly the same. As many values as they may share, there could be social, cultural, political, religious or other differences, and all it takes is one overlooked detail to turn a promising endeavor into a social media disaster.

In 2010, for example, KFC and the Susan G. Komen Foundation partnered up to sponsor “buckets for the cure.” KFC sold fried chicken in pink buckets, with $.50 from each bucket going to the foundation.

While the campaign raised more than $4 million, it also caused a huge social media backlash from people pointing out that high-fat, high-calorie foods are linked to obesity, which is linked to breast cancer. Someone may have picked up on that well-known fact if everyone had just taken a step back to look at the campaign objectively.

Taking a “What could go wrong?” approach could also have saved Coca-Cola a boatload of trouble in 2011, when it partnered with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to raise awareness and funds for endangered polar bears. Coca-Cola had pledged to match up to $1 million in consumer donations and, as part of a campaign to raise awareness, replaced its iconic red cans with white cans featuring polar bears and the message, “We’re turning our cans white because turning our backs isn’t an option.”

As well-intentioned as the campaign was, the company soon found itself having to answer to an outraged customer base. It seems the white cans looked a little too much like the silvery cans used for Diet Coke, and many customers bought the wrong ones by mistake. For some, it was just an inconvenience, while others — such as customers with diabetes — felt the company had put their health and safety at risk. Coca-Cola quickly switched to red cans featuring white polar bears, but the PR damage had already been done.

That last step — asking “What could go wrong?” — is so important ... yet so easily forgotten. That’s why it’s critical to include the question in your digital policy checklist for developing marketing campaigns with brand or nonprofit partners.

Related Article: Losing Sleep Over Your Lack of a Digital Policy? You Should Be

Partnerships Are Great When Guided by Thoughtful Digital Policies

Partnerships between brands and nonprofits can work wonderfully, benefiting everyone involved. But just as marriage requires a willingness to accommodate differences between families who have nothing in common other than the couple getting married, even well-planned partnerships have some rough edges to smooth out. And since the partnerships themselves are often formed at the executive level with no input from marketing, you probably won’t have the opportunity to say, “This may not be the best match.”

Instead, your job will be to figure out how to make the partnership work, whether that means being a little flexible with your own marketing methods or figuring out how to overcome potential objections from your partner’s audience.

You won’t be able to foresee every possible future partnership, so you can’t include all of the details in your digital policies. But you can include checklists or procedures that specify the things you need to do and think about when developing marketing campaigns for a brand/nonprofit partnership. And with the holiday season already upon us, I’d suggest getting started on that right now.