Sunday, November 21, 2010

Embedded Giving, Redux

It's that time of year again! Soon we will be walking through the aisles, stumbling from product to product to try to figure out just what all those special people in our lives want this year. And after we leave the check-out counter, it's important for us to not forget our favorite nonprofits, who also need gifts from us during this season of giving.

Luckily for all of us American consumers, we can do our shopping and give to charity at the same time. The gracious and good-willed corporations of the world are making it easier for you to give to your favorite charity in these times of small-budgets, while also buying that perfume your sister wants. Several companies have started partnerships to give a portion of their profits to the well-deserving charities, so you don't have to make those hard choices.

This is the phenomenon of embedded giving, the act of tying a charitable donation along with a purchase. I've written about this before, so I will try to not go much into what I've already said. You can also read all about it from people much smarter than me on Philanthropy 2173, GiveWell, Tactical Philanthropy, and, most recently, Good Intentions are Not Enough and AidWatch. What I'd like to go into a little more with this post is Lucy Bernholz notion of "charitywashing,"  which is related, but not limited to embedded giving.

Bernholz defines charitywashing in this way:
Charitywashing. Verb. Gaining the trust, good faith, or simply the business of customers by aligning your product with a charity. Often takes the form of statements that claim "...x% of sales of this object will be given to charity." 
I think I would push this a little further and say that this is not only about aligning a product to a  specific charity, but to the notion of working for social change in general. As Nathaniel Whittemore observed, doing shit is the "new cool" thing. It's cool to be trying to make a difference in the world, and corporations are catching on. There are countless charity-corporation partnerships that are branding corporations as "socially-conscious" in the hopes to sway consumers in their direction. Most recently, GAP released a new ad (which Whittemore discusses in the post linked above) that highlights the charity work of several very attractive people, wearing attractive GAP clothing. (Side note, Tim Ogden has been working on a system to rate these partnerships. Check it out, it's pretty cool.)

I tend to not have a problem with these charitywashing partnerships, as long as they do not increase consumption, and instead just shift it towards more socially-responsible choices. But the one area that I am concerned about is the complacency that it might create. I think this was best summed-up in a recent episode of 30 Rock, where the main character, Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey, buys jeans from a socially-conscious store and says wearing them makes her "not feel bad for all those long, hot showers I took because I was bored." (In the end, it turns out the jeans were made by Halliburton.)

When engaging in these purchases, we always need to constantly analyze our behavior to determine our motivations behind our actions. Are we doing it to feel good? Are we considering this our good deed for the day? Or are we just making a logical and rational decision that if you have the choice between a product that helps a nonprofit or one that doesn't, clearly you should buy the one that does. I'm concerned that most people engage in embedded philanthropy to be a part of the social-change lifestyle without having to do much work.

I'm reminded of a lyric from an Immortal Technique song, "Beef and Broccoli," (warning, strong language in that one):
"Being a vegetarian should never be associated with being a revolutionary or being open-minded. That's a dietary choice."
Buying something should never be associated with being revolutionary. It's a consumption choice. There's nothing wrong with consumption, but don't pretend it's anything more than that. I think there is a lot of potential to try to change consumption habits in revolutionary ways: For example, there are some group coupon companies that focus solely on bringing people to social enterprises. That's cool, and it's trying to shift our consumption patterns, which is necessary if we want to accomplish systematic social change. But there are also group coupon companies that simply give some of their proceeds to charity. That's cool too, but it isn't as revolutionary as upsetting consumption habits. And we shouldn't think of it in that way.

So, as you walk through those aisles, make sure you are aware of the motivations behind your giving at the checkout counter. If you want to give, then do it. But don't pretend that it's anything more than what it is. And if you want to be a part of the "new cool" like those attractive people in the GAP ad, remember, you can't buy your way into that club.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners

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