Unconscious Giving

In the latest Stanford Social Innovation Review, Angela Eikenberry, assistant professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, takes issue with cause marketing as a social good. She posits, “From pink ribbons to Product Red, cause marketing adroitly serves two masters, earning profits for corporations while raising funds for charities. Yet the short-term benefits of cause marketing belie its long-term costs. These hidden costs include individualizing solutions to collective problems; replacing virtuous action with mindless buying; and hiding how markets create many social problems in the first place. Consumption philanthropy is therefore unsuited to create real social change.”

As a pioneering advocate of cause marketing concepts and strategies, myself, I must admit that Professor Eikenberry managed to stop me in my tracks. Conceptually, I’ve always considered win-win transactions that help others and need— and grease the cogs of our free enterprise system as clever marketing strategies. However, Eikenberry’s term “consumption philanthropy” rattled me. She contends, “It devalues the moral core of philanthropy by making virtuous action easy and thoughtless.”

I think is helps to dissect her ideas here. On one level, I’m not so sure it’s a bad thing that we take philanthropy off some moral pedestal and weave into our fabric of everyday awareness—making giving a part of living. I’m not so sure we should reserve it for Sunday mornings of practiced piety when we are supposed to be behaving with moral fortitude. I think the part that resonated for me was the “thoughtless and mindless” language.

I do see philanthropy as a conscious act. When it is “mindless,” we as donors miss the “joy and heart” that can make giving—transformational, as opposed to transactional. The act of giving connects us with God and the very source and beauty of our creation. Transactional or “consumption philanthropy” may diminish the motivational component of generosity. It’s related more to the purchase impulse when the trigger is tied up in one’s justification for consumption.

Her assertion that “it obscures the links between markets—their firms, products, and services—and the negative impacts they can have on human well-being” and therefore “compromises the potential for charity to better society” is another interesting one. As long as we ask corporations to support philanthropic causes, we will always have an inherent tension between the corporate profit motive and social needs. And that’s why – even with all the brilliant cause campaigns and social media initiatives underway, nonprofits can expect only a small percentage of their support from the corporate sector. A nonprofit generally raises only 5 to 15% from corporate giving, including money raised from cause marketing. Even cause marketing powerhouse Susan G. Komen that raises close to $40 million from cause marketing raises ten-fold that amount from other sources.

As for the idea of that consumption philanthropy “distracts the giver from grappling with the issues,” that may be the case. But, as I preach in my own social media consulting work, nonprofits must be constantly honing a full array of fund-development tools. Cause-marketing, social media engagement or even direct mail are not stand-alone solutions. They are all part of the astute cause advocate’s mix. Perhaps, a strong cause-marketing message might even ignite a potential donor’s passion to support anew cause.

The comments resulting from this article are as interesting as the article itself. One of the people who disagrees with Professor Eikenberry is Joe Waters, a cause-marketing expert. He has continued the discussion on his blog, Selfish Giving.

I love what Joe Waters said: “Like jazz and baseball, cause marketing is distinctly American. Born from Wall Street capitalism and heartland generosity, it reflects our market culture and is a natural way to support our favorite causes. And while Professor Eikenberry shows the ways to making cause marketing better, there’s one thing she can’t hide: the costliest thing would be not to do it at all.”
What so you think?

For more information of cause marketing and social media strategies, contact me – ellagantz@sbcglobal.net

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