What Having a Child with Autism Taught Me About PR

Two Great Lessons for Designing An Effective Cause Marketing Program

By: Amy Boyle Collins, Vice President

It’s Autism Awareness Month, and like many parents of a child with special needs, I’ve been wearing blue, posting autism tidbits on social media and generally hustling my circle of influence to donate to the cause. I fancy myself better at this than most because my PR career is tailor-made for advocacy. However, I didn’t fully realize what this journey would teach me until my husband, Sherwood, said to me one day, “Let’s start a festival to raise awareness and money for local autism programs.”

After Sherwood wrote a solid business plan based on his idea of a food festival around the iconic beignet and convinced me to start shopping it with potential sponsors who got excited pretty quickly, I realized we were really going to do it. And thus, Beignet Fest and its corresponding Tres Doux Foundation was born.

Fast forward three very fast-paced years working with dedicated sponsors and partners, including Gambel Communications which has been an integral part of our success, and we have been able to fully fund the festival’s operations, plus net enough of a profit to dedicate more than $60,000 to programs for children with autism and related disorders. Our big bodacious dream is to see that number rise to $1 million over the next 10 years!

Raising corporate dollars for Beignet Fest, and in turn, giving away proceeds in the form of grants to local autism programs has taught me more about PR, particularly cause marketing, than anything I ever did.

If you are thinking about how your company can create a strategic, purposeful cause marketing program, then read on.

Lesson #1: Cause marketing programs require a transactional relationship between two entities.

When fundraising for an event, nonprofits look to the corporate community for event sponsorships. The relationship is framed around a set of benefits that the nonprofit offers the corporate partner for their investment as a sponsor.

Sponsorships help both entities. A nonprofit receives funds, volunteers, activation elements, etc. from the corporation, and the corporation receives a platform upon which to improve the community around them and to promote their business. It’s a perfectly symbiotic relationship when everyone is conscious of and manages the relationship based on these benefits.

When your business is looking at event sponsorships, it’s important to remember that the best partnerships are based on an purposefully-designed, transactional relationship – and, as such, you should absolutely have a contract or letter of agreement that is specific about what each entity will receive through the partnership.

When the event is over, you should also evaluate the effectiveness of the partnership based on the delivery and fulfillment of the contract, measuring ROI as you would for any other marketing program or media buy you invest in.

Lesson #2: When designing a cause marketing program, select a few key events and “go big” instead of spreading yourself thin across a lot of events.

When I work with sponsors for Beignet Fest, I seek corporate partners who want to become a major part of the event and curate an activation that is authentic to their brand.

For example, Ochsner Hospital for Children sponsors the Kid’s Village. They could write me a check, and we could put Ochsner’s logo on banners and be done. Instead, over the last three years the Ochsner team and our team have worked hand-in-hand to plan a space with engaging activities that are accessible to all children regardless of their abilities, all staffed by Ochsner volunteers complete with practical and fun giveaways for the kids.

In addition to the sponsorship fee, Ochsner has committed to the event with human resources, infrastructure elements, their own pre-event marketing, etc. What this has produced is a fully activated partnership that adds value to the event and one that builds Ochsner Hospital for Children’s brand in a meaningful way. (Thank you, Ochsner!)

So, what has giving away $60,000 taught me about cause marketing? Create meaningful relationships that make a lasting impact and provide the outcomes your business is seeking.