Not as Good as Giving – Study Finds Cause Marketing Drives Down Donations

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April 5, 2011; Source: The Agitator | A University of Michigan study has found that cause marketing hurts charitable giving. More precisely, the study found that giving decreased if a donor had previously purchased a cause-related product, even if the donor was going to make the purchase independent of any charitable considerations. As a result of her findings, Professor Aradhna Krishna, the study's lead researcher, suggests that maybe not all giving is good giving.

However, it would seem that the findings are more anecdotal than the headline implies. For one, the study only surveyed some 300 college students, prompting some criticism about the sample size, range, and other methodological choices. It's also unclear the effect of cause marketing on donations: In other words, did the overall gifts or the number donations drop, or something else?

Although these findings might amount to pop science, they are probably not surprising to many in the nonprofit sector, especially given recent high profile examples such as a breast cancer campaign tied to Kentucky Fried Chicken's "Buckets for the Cure," that some people found in bad taste. Clearly, there needs to be a stronger, and better-reported study on this subject in the future.

Still, despite its shortcomings, the study raises some interesting questions. For example: If it is true that cause marketing drives down donations, what's the lesson for social entrepreneurs? What do you think?–James David Morgan

  • Janet Rechtman

    Big surprise! Cause marketing fundamentally alters the altruistic equation, substituting self interest (efficiency, incentive of a lagniappe, something for nothing, pain reduction, you name it) for interest in helping others. We’ve got to stop trading down.

  • Joe Waters

    Thanks for your balanced take on the Michigan study.

    I make three points in my own post on the this study.

    First, there

  • Clay Forsberg

    I think the effectiveness of cause marketing, donations or even volunteering has to do with the issue of engagement. The easier it is to participate – say traditional cause marketing like the KFC example, the less engagement. Contributing a few cents or so makes little impact to the contributor. While the cause may be worthy – how much staying power does it have and what relationship is created.

    The more effort an activity involves … the more lasting the impact, the stronger the synaptic connection formed in one’s mind. And the stronger these connection, and the more likely they will be repeated.

    If a social entrepreneur or cause marketer takes the time to organize a social campaign that involves physical effort and participation, transcending just monetary donation – the stronger the loyalty bond will be between the consumer and that organization.

  • Elaine Fogel

    Since this study was limited to one demographic – one that does not typically represent a large percentage of charitable donations – I would say this study is severely flawed. When someone does a reputable research study that can break down results by age group and donor history, then we’ll be able to see if there’s a cause and effect.

  • Jennifer Chesworth

    Excuse me, are you basing this “surprise” of yours on the giving pattern of 300 college students? College students? How much of your personal income did you donate to charity when you were in college? How many nonprofits find college students to be the primary and most significant donors of their organizations? Nothing worse than using sloppy research to support something one thinks is probably true.

  • Megan Strand

    Appreciate your balanced depiction of this new study. As most have pointed out in the comments thus far, the study is quite small and leave much room for interpretation. Even Professor Krishna herself (in the actual study) notes that larger samples are needed to validate her findings.

    CMF President David Hessekiel also penned a response here:

    But this study DOES raise the issue (yet again) of transparency being of the utmost importance. This is an issue that we’re monitoring carefully at CMF in an attempt to raise the bar for the entire industry.

    -Megan Strand

  • JamieJXN

    I appreciated your comments.

    The Michigan study does not provide a good example to demonstrate a good cause related marketing strategy, i.e., Kentucky Fried Chicken and Breast Cancer. There is no commonality between these two organizations.

    Cause related marketing works best (as others have indicated) when the two organizations have a common mission. For example a bank partners with a non-profit that help individuals with insolvency, or a grocery store partners with a food bank. This type of arrangement is a win, win. The for- profit looks great and the non-profit hopefully receives more donations and increased visibility.

    The issue of transparency should be a part of the campaign. Individuals who purchase the product should be informed as to how much of their money is going to the non-profit. I don’t know if this will affect their purchase decision, but it is the right thing to do.

  • Geri Stengel


  • Garth NF

    There was a small confidential study carried out in New Zealand several years ago from a large, ‘household name’ charity before it entered a cause-related marketting agreement. Essentially it found that its ‘street givers’ and small household donors both over-estimated how much might actually be going to the charity (when unspecified on the can/packet), AND were less likely to make an additional small donation (the attitude seeming to be “I gave at the supermarket”). I seem to recall large, regular donors were much less effected. But in the end the findings were serious enough to scare the charity out of signing up for what at first looked like a very lucrative deal (‘free money with no effort on the charities part). Unfortunately the survey remains confidential inside the charity as it contains lots of sensitive data about their donors.