We’re inclined to think of cause marketing as a big brand aligned with a national nonprofit in a massive media campaign. Think Coca-Cola’s fundraising for polar bears with the World Wildlife Fund or Yoplait’s “Save Lids to Save Lives” for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Most of the time these advertising efforts are smart, effective – and very slick.
There are, however, many cause marketing campaigns that aren’t huge, polished affairs. What these smaller – more grassroot – cause marketing campaigns lack in sophistication, they often make up in heart.
Case in point: Cultivo Organic Cold Brew Coffee and grocery chain Fairway Market have combined forces to provide meals for queer teenagers living on the street of New York City. Studies show 40% of the runaway homeless youth population identify as LGBTQ+.
How does a program like this come together? In this case, the answer includes an interesting mix of characters, including two cast members from the classic TV series, The Golden Girls.
Picture it: Los Angeles, 2005.
An aging actress answers the telephone, her raspy voice greeting a former coworker. Calling from the Big Apple, he asks if for a good cause she’d revive her one-woman show, Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends?
The star of Maude and The Golden Girls listens as her old friend describes his volunteer efforts with the Ali Forney Center (AFC), the country’s largest agency devoted to homeless queer youth.
Executive director Carl Siciliano created the nonprofit in New York City 3 years earlier. His team strives to provide housing, food, and medical care for clients, but demand far outstrips funding. AFC has only 12 shelter beds but a waiting list of over 100 teens who long to get off the streets.
In her early 80s, Arthur has struggles of her own. The two-time Emmy winner is quietly wrestling with a cancer diagnosis. She hates the cold and doesn’t even own a winter coat.
But the native New Yorker is shocked by what her old coworker tells her. It outrages her sense of decency that some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender kids are tossed out of their homes for merely being who they are. Arthur greenlights the benefit performance.
That December, the woman who won a Tony for playing Vera Charles in Mame dazzles the Manhattan audience by singing torch songs, bantering with the crowd, and delivering her signature death stare. In the process, she raises over $40,000 in one night. For the rest of her life, the comedy icon tells anyone who’ll listen about the Ali Forney Center.
After her death, Arthur bequeaths $300,000 in her will to the organization. It’s a lifeline during the Great Recession, a time when director Carl Siciliano worries he’ll have to shutter the organization due to a lack of adequate financial support. Siciliano uses some of the donation to purchase the nonprofit’s first building. In her honor, he names the new 18-bed facility the Bea Arthur Residence. New York, 2009.
“Marry me so my name can be ‘Rue La Rue,’” says the actress when she meets Michael J. La Rue for the first time.
Rue McClanahan may have played sex-positive senior Blanche Devereaux on The Golden Girls, but she doesn’t get hitched to the much younger man with the distinctive last name. She’s only joking – plus, he’s gay. But the two do form an intense bond. La Rue becomes her producer and confidant.
When the Broadway community holds a memorial to mourns Bea Arthur’s passing, McClanahan invites Michael La Rue as her guest.
The Ali Forney Center is featured front and center. In lieu of flowers, mourners are encouraged to make donations to the nonprofit. Carl Siciliano is even asked to produce the event.
Backstage, McClanahan and La Rue meet Siciliano for the first time. The actress expresses a desire to lend a hand to the cause championed by her now-deceased friend. Within months, however, McClanahan’s health fails. She dies the next year.
McClanahan named Michael La Rue to take over her business and personal affairs should the need arise. Soon after her death, La Rue donates a guided tour of the actress’s apartment to the Ali Forney Center on behalf of the estate of Rue McClanahan. The private visit becomes the highest-priced auction item of the night.
A few years later, Michael La Rue attends a national restaurant convention in the Windy City. He’s opening a new Golden Girls-themed restaurant in Upper Manhattan which will feature the “Rue La Rue Café” coffee brand. The establishment will house Rue McClanahan’s vast collection of show biz memorabilia, including items from her hit TV shows.
Michael La Rue finds little interest for his coffee idea among the big roasting companies at the convention. Then, he discovers a small booth near the back of the hall staffed by Uncommon Coffee Roasters (UCR), an LGBT-owned business headquartered in Michigan. As La Rue utters the words “Golden Girls,” the staff at the booth scream, “We’re in!”
Uncommon Coffee Roasters designs a special coffee for each of the four main characters in The Golden Girls. During the process, La Rue and the president of the company, Guy Darienzo, become friends. New York City, Now.
Darienzo and La Rue meet up to celebrate a new distribution deal for Uncommon Coffee Roaster’s all-organic, cold brew brand, Cultivo.
The caffeinated drink already has over 200 independent retailers located in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois and Washington, D.C.
Now, Darienzo has closed an agreement for the product to launch in all 15 locations of Fairway Market, a prominent tri-state supermarket chain. He wants to do something to help New York’s queer community. UCR has long believed in cause marketing. Each year, it sells a special blend for LGBTQ+ Pride Month and gives part of each sale to gay charities in Michigan.
Michael La Rue has an idea. Because of his connections to the estates of Rue McClanahan and Bea Arthur, the answer is clear: the Ali Forney Center.
La Rue reaches out to AFC. While his call is on hold, the music playing is the theme song from The Golden Girls, a good omen. Carl Siciliano and the AFC staff welcome the much-needed funds. The Center will soon lose $300,000 in federal funding and is searching for new revenue sources.
Uncommon Coffee Roasters guarantees a percentage of Cultivo sales in Fairway Market stores will provide a minimum of 60 meals per month, or 720 per year. While that’s a fraction of the 177,000 meals served yearly by the Ali Forney Center, Darienzo hopes his company’s effort will grow with time, as well as spur other firms to step up.
Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan may be gone, but their spirits of generosity live on. Arthur’s estate is providing housing for queer teens. The estate of Rue McClanahan is connecting a coffee roasting company to the Ali Forney Center, which provides meals for the over 1,400 clients which show up each year.
As a cause marketing campaign, the Cultivo – Fairway effort may not yet be huge, but for New York City’s homeless LGBTQ+ youth, it’s golden.
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