Voices from the Field: Is it Marketing or Philanthropy?

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This month I received a request from a friend to “like” a company on Facebook. According to my friend, the more “likes” that this business received, the more they would give to a nonprofit on whose board he served and whose mission I supported. Something about this ask didn’t really feel good to me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why that was. I went ahead and clicked “like” as I tried to identify what was bothering me.  

 Then I got it. I felt manipulated. I didn’t really “like” this company. I didn’t not like them either. I simply didn’t know anything about them. I just wanted them to give to this very worthy cause.  And of course they knew that. So I, along with hundreds of other socially conscious people, “liked” them, and with these clicks this local company boldly moved into philanthropy.

As an avid Facebook fan, I was accustomed to companies asking me to like their business in exchange for a coupon for a free ice-cream cone or to be entered into a contest for an all-expenses-paid trip to some wonderful locale, but this was different. The benefit of the “like” no longer related to the product of the company—it now related to meeting the needs of the community. I should have liked this, right? But I didn’t.  

Why? Well, it felt dishonest. Philanthropy is supposed to be born from noble ideals like those held by Andrew Carnegie or Bill and Melinda Gates. This business had simply entered philanthropy through the side door, or maybe even the back door, of pure marketing. It’s not that marketing is a bad thing. In fact, marketing is part of the double or triple bottom line that is a hallmark of corporate philanthropy. For major corporations, philanthropy is effective and strategic if it presents them as solid corporate citizens meeting a community need while simultaneously bringing them new customers or strengthening their bonds with existing ones. Marketing is definitely part of the overall equation for established corporate philanthropic programs. It may even be a larger part than my altruistic self wants to think, but at least the profit side of their philanthropy is well couched within the framework of meeting the needs of the community. Corporate social responsibility, for me, needs to be about more than writing a check.

 This Facebook approach was solely about marketing. It was overt, blatant, in-your-face, I-want-your-business marketing. As soon as I “liked” the company, the onslaught of clever messages started. Not only were they telling me that they were the best in their industry, they sent me research reports, survey findings, and market data in what seemed like, and probably was, mere seconds. Is this yet another new, emerging iteration of philanthropy, or has this form of philanthropy been quietly simmering in the growing panoply of philanthropic approaches unbeknownst to me?

In just the last few years, we’ve seen traditional philanthropy morph in interesting ways. We can give directly to causes all over the world with our smartphones. No intermediaries needed. The Case Foundation has asked us to vote on worthy causes, as has Pepsi. Forget due diligence. Forget informed program officers looking at logic models, program plans, and evaluation models. Has the head and/or heart philanthropy debate already become a bit passé? What will we call this new form of philanthropy?  Will we cynically call it “mercenary philanthropy” or “marketing philanthropy” or will it be dubbed the more benign “Facebook philanthropy” or maybe simply “click philanthropy”?

Whatever we call it and however uncomfortable it might initially feel, it is philanthropy: a business in our region will be supporting a local nonprofit organization that provides a vital service to the region.  Maybe not in the case of corporate philanthropy of the magnitude of an international company like Pepsi, but certainly corporate philanthropy on the local scale. I should recognize it for what it is: a social marketing innovation with a conscience. Maybe . . . but I have just one question: if I “unlike” them now, will they take their contribution back?  Hmmmm. . . .