Mixing Business and Charity — A Cautionary Tale

“Would you like to add a one dollar donation to your purchase to support …children’s literacy? …feeding the poor?  …families without homes?”

I hadn’t yet been able to comprehend how a shopping trip for milk, socks and shampoo could result in a $147.82 bill (deeply regretting the tooth whitening kit I had tossed into the cart on impulse), when the cashier asked me to spend another dollar to help some of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our community.

I pride myself in being a charitable Canadian, but I always say no to these requests.  I’ll make my donations directly, thank you very much, and get my own tax receipt.  The picture that is proudly displayed in the customer service area showing the president of WalMart presenting a big cheque to his favourite charity really bugs me.  That’s not WalMart being charitable; it’s WalMart guilting its customers into being charitable!

Still, I feel a little sense of shame every time I refuse to donate, and have sometimes even tried to explain my rationale to the woman in line behind me (who probably just wishes I would stop talking and keep it moving.)

Then there’s the kid that stands outside our neighbourhood gas station every Saturday selling chocolate covered almonds.

“Would you like to help sick kids?” he says.

Who can answer no to that without looking like a heartless cad?

So one day, I broke down and bought the almonds.  $5.00 for a small box inside of which was a cellophane bag filled mostly with air.  I think I counted eight almonds in there and the chocolate could most generously be described as waxy.  Since then, I’ve made a habit of using complete strangers as human shields and avoiding eye contact
with that kid as I rush past him into the store.

However, somebody is buying those almonds or he wouldn’t be standing there.  And if I’m correct in my theory that the number of retailers soliciting donations from their customers is growing, then they must also be relatively successful in getting people to fork over an extra dollar.  After all, people want to be charitable and most of us can spare a dollar or two.

This weekend, an essay in The Toronto Star caught my eye.  The subhead read: “Buying products linked to good causes makes us feel better, but who really benefits?”

As I sat down to read it, I thought — I know where this is going; another expose on the big bad marketer.

Sure enough, the writer gave an example of a $40 t-shirt that was sold in support of a good cause.  The shopper feels like they’ve made a $40 donation to that cause and has the t-shirt to prove it, when in fact very little of that $40 goes to the charity.  The t-shirt manufacturer is really in the business of selling t-shirts and the good cause is just a means to that end.

This is (dare I say, obviously) true.  Years ago when the pink ribbon campaign was just beginning to turn the world of consumer goods pink, I suggested running a promotion with pink ribbon themed bottles of TUMS.  We already had a couple of varieties of TUMS that would fit the bill.  Just figure out where to make the donation, fill bottles with the pink hued tablets, slap a pink TUMS label on the front and you’re pretty much ready to go.  (I’m sure my product sourcing comrades are shuddering with the simplicity I’ve assumed in this process – sorry!  I’m afraid that old habits die hard.)

TUMS was such a big seller that it wouldn’t take long before even a small donation per bottle would add up to a significant dollar amount for breast cancer research.

Unfortunately, the TUMS brand management team didn’t share my enthusiasm.  I had long ago vowed not to be one of those bosses who comes up with ideas and then forces their team to mindlessly execute them…  and so the pink ribbon idea died a silent death.  But I always wished that we had done it.

I’d like to think this was because I desperately wanted to get a donation in the hands of a worthy cause like breast cancer research.  But it wasn’t.  I wished we had done it because I was certain it would sell extra cases of TUMS and generate incremental profit.  The donation was a bonus.

It never crossed my mind that the effect of my promotion might be to decrease net donations to breast cancer research!  But the Toronto Star article went on to cite studies that have illustrated something called ‘moral licensing.’  Essentially, it means that when people believe they have already done something charitable, they are more likely to let themselves off the hook when faced with a future choice of good versus not-so-good.

Picture the self righteous woman with her reusable shopping bags tearing out of the store parking lot in her gas-guzzling SUV.  If her shopping bags allow her to feel less
guilty about her environmentally unfriendly choice of vehicle, then the net effect of those shopping bags is actually negative!

I thought about this for a good long time and I wish that I could argue that it isn’t true, but something in my gut tells me it is.

On the plus side, it’s one more reason to keep saying no to those awful almonds at the gas station.

* * * * *

Consumers no longer have to watch advertising in order to see their favourite television programs and web surfers have become incredibly good at blocking out unwanted messages.  As a result, the marketing gurus tell us that social marketing is the future, and that brands need to find ways to participate in the online conversation taking place between consumers.  Well, a handy way to get conversation happening on your brand is to tie it to something that people really care about… like a charitable organization.  But this whole moral licensing thing makes it a bit tricky doesn’t it?

One example of a product that’s getting it right is Pantene, with their Beautiful Lengths program.  I stumbled upon it a few weeks ago when my daughter Taylor decided she wanted to get a big haircut and donate her hair to a cancer patient wig-making program.  What a beautiful brand tie in!  Girls are encouraged to grow long, strong hair
by using Pantene and then to donate that hair to a worthy cause.  There’s no false sense of the value for that donation; Taylor’s hair will become one-sixth of a wig.

It’s not easy to avoid the landmines inherent in mixing business and charity, but it is possible.

* * * * *

Here’s the article from The Toronto Star that inspired this post http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1070419–philanthropy-and-marketing

Here’s a link to the Pantene Beautiful Lengths program  http://www.pantene.com/en-ca/beautiful-lengths-cause/Pages/default.aspx

For more information on moral licensing check this out  http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/04/our_moral_thermostat_-_why_being_good_can_give_people_licens.php

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3 thoughts on “Mixing Business and Charity — A Cautionary Tale

  1. Thanks for doing the research and enlightening your readers about the truth behind donating at the cash register, Diane. There are better, more meaningful, ways to make charitable donations.
    Winnie

  2. What’s even more troublesome is how much actually goes to charitable work versus “admin” in all the large charities. Great article D!

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