Businesses often sell products that partner with research organizations, philanthropic groups or humanitarian causes. But how much money from those sales actually goes toward the foundations they claim to support?

Bobbie Shay Lee, former NFL cheerleader and founder of The Center for Transparency, gave a presentation at the University of Rhode Island on April 13 to speak exactly to that. The lecture, titled Profit or Purpose? A look Below the Surface, is meant to address the misconceptions about where profits from cause-related marketing campaigns wind up.  

To begin her lecture, Lee used an iceberg and the Titanic to talk about deception in cause-related marketing. She said that the buy-in of the consumers and the arrogance of the captain, or in this case corporations, can cause oversight and essentially “sink the unsinkable ship, especially in cause-related marketing.”

The cause-related marketing industry rakes in $1.7 billion annually, she said, and is unregulated by the Consumer Protection Agency. While Lee acknowledged cause-related marketing as a business strategy, she also is concerned about the ethicacy surrounding these business ventures.

Lee discussed her own personal connection to the cause as a cancer survivor.

“It’s been 18 years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I take tremendous pride in the fact that I’m still tethered to the cause because I think that is what has kept me on course and diligent to the point where I will not quit until I am done,” Lee said.

Lee was diagnosed with breast cancer as a 25-year-old NFL Cheerleader. In the middle of a game, she walked off the field and quit her job after enduring the lack of support from the NFL in her condition.

“At that time it was shameful, it was a time where we didn’t talk about [breast cancer],” Lee said. When she turned to the organization for help, the NFL provided no resources for Lee, despite hosting all sorts of breast cancer awareness fundraising and promotions.

After leaving, Lee said she had no desire to fight the NFL, but instead would raise awareness on her own. Ten years later, Lee said the organization embraced breast cancer, and wanted her to be a part of engaging the community with her story. They wanted to give her the pink football and do the coin toss during a breast cancer awareness game, and she agreed.

When Lee came back to conduct research about how much of the money the organization raised for breast cancer research, they refused to help her, even though legally the public is entitled to those documents. Lee filed a complaint with the Department of Revenue, and along with influences of outside organizations, helped strip the NFL of its tax status, “they are no longer a recognized association,” she said.

Lee doesn’t count this as a win. This is a bigger issue than the NFL, as 97 percent of business executives use cause-related marketing as a valid business strategy.

“There is some validity investing in your community,” Lee said. “ But where you lose validity is when you lose transparency.”

Lee explained the Center for Transparency’s method to evaluate how consumers know that the products they buy that claim to support certain nonprofit organizations actually go to those organizations. They encourage consumers to “check the F.A.C.T.S.” an acronym for identifying viable donations to a cause. It stands for find, assume, clear, tax, and satisfaction.

When buying a product that promises a donation to an organization, Lee said consumers should understand what the label is promising, assume nothing about that promise, look for clear, measurable contribution details about how much money is being donated, and be sure to look for the tax exempt organization on the receiving end of the money.

In the end, she said that the consumer is ultimately the one who can determine how satisfied they are with the contribution being made to an organization through this kind of “donation with purchase” cause-related marketing.

The Center for Transparency’s long term goal is to work with corporations to help them better direct the money that they raise for certain causes so that the organizations will get the most out of those funds.

She said that so many organizations, like the NFL, sell products and hold themed-games to promote breast cancer support and research, but not patient-centered care. Lee argues that is part of what people need the most.

“I think we’re all aware when it comes to breast cancer specifically,” Lee said. “We know the numbers…we all know somebody who’s had it…it’s touched our lives. So what’s next?”

In her quest to “understand where all of the money that we raised is going” along with her own experiences dealing with health insurance, she realized that patient centered care is what could be next for cause-related marketing.

Lee finished her talk by explaining that advocacy and work with her organization is her purpose.

“No matter what you believe in or who you believe in or how you believe,” Lee said. “The foundation of so many beliefs is that we have a purpose in a purpose driven life. Whether it be a small or little, it’s just for you to decide whether it’s fulfilling professionally or personally.”

The lecture was sponsored by the College of Business Administration as part of its ninth annual Vangermeersch Endowed Lecture series.