By Jennifer James

When the economy gets lean, customers don’t want to see your company turn mean – quite the opposite in fact. 78% of U.S. consumers want companies to maintain or increase financial support for charities, according to a study done by Opinion Research Corp.

85% of customers have more positive feelings towards companies with charitable causes, and 75% indicated that they are more likely to buy a product if the purchase is directly tied to an issue they care about. Reaping goodwill and increased sales, many companies are wearing their charity of choice on their sleeves.

(PRODUCT) RED, a multi-brand campaign that raises money to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in Africa, has attracted the support of Gap Inc. The jean giant donates half the profits from all (PRODUCT) RED sales to the fund, giving customers a way to donate while also fulfilling their own needs. Apple Inc. has also joined in, donating $10 from the sale of every red 4GB iPod Nano to the cause. By marrying charitable good with commerce, Gap and Apple are providing unique products that satisfy a market need while also helping solve a global health problem.

And by the way I’m not just blogging about what other companies do. At market2world, I lead our donation of PR and marketing expertise to SchoolBOX, a registered Canadian charity that supports the right of every child in Central America to a basic education. Started in 2006 by Tom Affleck, the organization has been growing organically by reaching out to friends and family here in Almonte, Ontario, our beautiful riverfront community that’s located a few kilometers outside Ottawa, Canada’s capital city.

SchoolBOX has sent over 20 volunteers to Central America to work with communities to help build schools. To date one library and one school has been completed with plans to build eight more schools in 2009.

SchoolBOX is an entrepreneurial success story – increasing donor contributions by an incredible 940% from 2007 to 2008. Since we climbed aboard the cause, we have helped SchoolBOX garner important print and TV profiles in outlets that have never told the SchoolBOX story, but like us, are attracted by the grassroots, can-do spirit that drives Tom and his team of volunteers to transform the lives of children.

Connecting your company or product to a good cause will increase brand loyalty and help sail you through to better economic times. Gap, with the help of its RED product line, has a market capitalization of US $8.6 billion, compared to peers such as Abercrombie & Fitch Co. at US $2 billion and American Eagle Outfitters Inc. at $1.98 billion. Apple has experienced the same phenomenon. It has an $82.5 billion market cap, leading the race above Dell Inc. with $21.87 billion and Hewlett-Packard Co. with $80.99 billion.

So if the times dictate you have to get leaner, remember that the market doesn’t reward meaner. Quite the opposite. Doing good while you do business makes good dollars and great sense.

(Jennifer James is a Communications Strategist with market2world communications inc., Ottawa, Canada's tech PR and product marketing agency.)