The Middleman

Bruce Burtch brings nonprofits and for-profits together

You’d have sworn it was an Onion story: Why is there a pink-hued fracking drill bit jutting out from my Facebook newsfeed?

It was crazy, but it was no satire. The Susan G. Komen Foundation made headlines last month when it linked up with the fracking industry to promote its annual Race for the Cure against breast cancer. The image they decided on was the pink-hued drill bit, and it was weird.

This was “cause marketing” gone sideways, and not the first time Komen’s dalliance with corporate donors raised eyebrows among veterans in the nonprofit community.

Marin author-entrepreneur Bruce Burtch was recently holding court in a San Rafael coffee shop and recalled another Komen snafu from 2010. Burtch is the author of Win-Win for the Greater Good, and self-described coiner of the phrases “cause marketing” and “do well by doing good.” The high-energy San Rafael resident matches big-pocket investors with altruistic nonprofits, and has been at it since the 1970s.

In 2010, Burtch recalled, Kentucky Fried Chicken got with the Komen Foundation and offered customers pink-hued buckets of wings, thighs and breasts. It was an unmitigated public relations disaster for Komen. Why would the company accept money from purveyors of fried, factory-farmed fast food that might give you cancer?

“They thought they were doing the right thing,” says Burtch. Speaking generally, he adds, “A mismatched cause can destroy in five minutes a 20-year effort.”

Burtch has matched nonprofits with for-profits since he brokered a mutually beneficial liaison between Marriott theme parks and the March of Dimes in the late 1970s. Love them or hate them—and many progressives hate them—these alliances are here to stay. Ideally, they are “partners working for the greater good,” says Burtch.

He says the landscape between giver and receiver has shifted in recent years, as corporations work to maximize the public relations appeal to consumers—and contribute to employee satisfaction in the bargain, Burtch says. This is not just about sending the money and then taking the feel-good photograph for the annual report to investors.

These days, he says, “if you just put your hand out, it’s not happening. More corporations now take the approach of, ‘We want to give the money but we also want to work with the nonprofit.'”

According to the Marin County Nonprofit Landscape Study 2013, there are more than 1,500 nonprofits in Marin County alone, the highest, per capita, in the state and maybe the country.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the outsized levels of social concern and commitment on display in much of the enlightened North Bay, not to mention its proximity to lots of money.

The nonprofits here range from Point Reyes Station’s Environmental Action Committee to Marin Fair Housing, to the Jackson Café in San Rafael (see Dining this week, page 13, for more on the Jackson Café), and beyond.

Nowadays investors in nonprofits like these will put an emphasis on employee volunteering, pro bono work for the organization and other activities where the nonprofits can leverage the “brain power” of their investors to the greater good, says Burtch.

A 2009 study on cause marketing from Stanford University’s Social Innovation Review set the bar even higher for concerned corporations in search of a nonprofit: “Rather than tying charity to profits, corporations should focus on their own responsibility to their employees (through means such as fair wages and healthy, satisfying work conditions), the environment (through means such as greener and more sustainable practices), and the global society (through means such as Fair Trade practices and loyalty to communities of operation). Corporations might also join other foundations and donors in funding grassroots efforts to improve communities.”

“Anyone with a good idea can start a nonprofit,” Burtch says, and that’s not always such a good idea.

With the big number of nonprofits comes big competition for donor money—and, says Burtch, duplicated efforts that aren’t necessarily serving the people who are supposed to be served.

The nonprofit is not the cause, Burtch says: “I think a lot of the nonprofits take their eyes off the prizes, in my opinion.”

For example, Burtch notes that there used to be two food banks serving Marin County. Everyone thought they were doing the right thing, but the result was duplication of services, waste and possible confusion among clients who rely on food banks for nutrition.

The problem was solved, says Burtch, once the nonprofit administrators got involved. “Marin Community Foundation said to merge, and they did. They have the money.”

The latest Komen controversy highlighted why there’s often public skepticism over such liasions. And, there’s often mistrust between organizations even after they’ve teamed up.

It’s a “huge” issue, says Burtch, and the trick to closing the chasm is to “bridge the cultural divide between for- and nonprofits, first by not having any surprises or hidden agendas,” he says.

“The first question I have for a corporation is, why are you doing this? Is there an ulterior motive for giving? Get the agenda out there, put that on the table, because this is about trust.”

The difficulty is selling that trust to the public. Chevron, which operates a refinery in Richmond, participated in a workforce development program with Catholic Charities in 2009.

The idea, says Burtch, was for Chevron to pay to train men and women, “and maybe provide a better workforce for Chevron.”

But many in the hyper-progressive region could not get past “Oh my God, you’re taking money from Chevron,” says Burtch—as he also admits the obvious: “Sometimes companies are looking to burnish their image by developing cause marketing. Good faith is the key.”

Good faith is good; better still are built-in corporate values that reflect the cause being promoted. In some cases, says Burtch, the corporation will offer a product connected to the cause or, in the case of Patagonia or, will “build ’cause consciousness’ into the [investment] plan. For them, it’s not about the money—it’s about the messaging.”

Investors, he says, “are looking for a social return on their investment. This is a business-value proposition to for-profits.”

Regardless of the motive or the investor, says Burtch, the bottom line in any link-up between for-profits and the nons has to be: “Where’s the public benefit?”