April 2003  Volume 29, Issue 3
April 2003 Issue
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Leverage Your Firm's Charity Dollars

by Petri R.J. Darby
Law firms typically make charity donations in response to a specific request from a partner or client who has a pet cause. Sometimes they make one simply because the charity asks for it. If that's the scattershot approach your firm takes, you're missing a big opportunity. It's called cause branding.

Cause branding is a community relations approach designed to build brand equity for a firm and to shape firm character through a long-term (three- to five-year) strategic alliance with a single charitable cause. By streamlining all your giving and pro bono efforts toward one single issue, you can concentrate the impact of image building, while at the same time providing enormous meaning and purpose for your entire firm.
Yes, it is hard to eschew all causes for just one. But it will be time well spent. Start by outlining what would constitute a successful outcome and then work your way backward to choose a cause that meets those criteria. Here are key questions to ask about possible causes.

Elements of Successful Cause Branding

  • Is it designed as a long-term program? Branding campaigns, corporate or charity, are not six-month or one-year endeavors. They take several years. Deliberate planning and active commitment are the keys.
  • Is the organization's cause highly critical, timely and visible? Find an issue that is really relevant to your community. Research what the media is covering. There are lots of causes needing a champion and many people needing help. Find out what charities are active in your area. Then identify where you fit in.
  • Does it integrate well into the firm's values and business model? A focused cause program must become an integral part of the firm culture. Everyone in the firm must understand and buy into the effort. It must be included in strategic business planning discussions and become a firm program, not a marketing function.
  • Will it involve all employees? Cause-related partnerships offer employees-lawyers and staff-the chance to share a common commitment, bond through organized volunteer efforts and reinforce the firm's support for growing civic leaders.
  • Will it allow for community partners? A successful charity campaign enlists the resources and support of many different organizations. Everything from the media to other firms and nonprofits that address that particular cause.
  • Is it supported with time, volunteers and promotion? Monetary donations are not enough for a firm to proclaim it is a good corporate citizen. And they certainly do not guarantee you will be viewed as one. Your firm must take responsibility for the cause and approach it from all angles and levels of involvement, just as your lawyers would approach a client's business problem.
  • Can your involvement make a measurable impact? Your goal in this endeavor is to make a difference in the lives of people living in your community. It is important for both internal and external audiences to see that change is being made-and that you are a part of it. If you do not have enough money, time or human resources to make a real mark, find something else. Make what you do matter.
  • Will the activity include an element of diversity? Diversity of all kinds is important in our communities and in our firms. Ensuring that your charity program benefits diverse audiences can serve as a supporting element to a law firm's recruitment, retention and target business development programs.

You'll want to identify a number of other criteria to determine if your charity program is hitting its mark. Cause branding programs are not easy. But when they are done right, they will benefit your law firm's culture, image and bottom line.

Petri R.J. Darby ( pdarby@jenkens.com) manages national public relations and regional marketing for Jenkens & Gilchrist in Houston. He was previously the brand manager in the national office of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.