More Big Brands Team Up with Non-Profits

By Andy Uhler, Marketplace

Marathon Kids is a non-profit that started 20 years ago in Austin, Texas, and quickly spread statewide. The idea was to get kids to be more active through running. The company has just partnered with Nike to try to expand internationally.

The Marathon Kids office in Austin feels like a small, local non-profit. It doesn’t feel like one that inked a partnership deal with Nike. Nike teaming up with a nonprofit to get four- and five-year-old kids to start running seemed like a pretty simple idea: Nike wants to get its brand out to kids as early as possible. And the nonprofit would now be working with Nike-sized resources.

Susan McPherson, a corporate social responsibility consultant, explained it’s not that simple. “Partnerships are so complicated and take so much effort that, if they weren’t in it, if they didn’t care, they wouldn’t do this,” she said. “There are a hell of a lot of other things that Nike could be throwing its money around.”

But it isn’t like Nike is giving these children shoes. After all, that’s not Marathon Kid’s mission. The non-profit goes into communities and schools to set up running clubs and leaves running them to the locals. Nike is taking Marathon Kids and turning it into a story, essentially through a good-looking flyer. Christine Pollei, executive director of Marathon Kids, said the partnership is about maximizing time and resources.

“Why wouldn’t we allow people who do this for a living – basically market and brand products and sell it – do that for us?” she said. “That’s their role and their job.”

Nike can make a play on the youth running market and muster some corporate goodwill. But it’s still Nike’s time and money. Caitlin Morris of Nike’s Global Impact team, said the Marathon Kids model is a good one.

“They just need the tools and a little bit of coaching to make it happen,” she said. “So we have a lot of respect for sort of the thoughtfulness they’ve put into the approach.”

Morris said Marathon Kids is acting a lot like a business by using data to build expansion models. People in the business world call it scalability. But Morris also recognizes that some people will question Nike’s motivation.

“Will there be some cynicism? Sure,” she said.

Susan McPherson said it’s fine to be skeptical of brands teaming up with non-profits. But if a company like Nike does it, it’s not on a whim.

“Somebody did due diligence to find out that this was a viable nonprofit that was doing good work,” she said.

Because if it wasn’t doing good work and Nike attached its brand, Nike would be the first to be called out.

Featured in: Marketplace Morning Report for Monday, November 6, 2015