The commercialization of philanthropy

“Poverty is an industry for a lot of these do-gooders.”
– Bob Lonsberry, on his show, May 18, 2010

Driving around running errands this weekend, I tuned in to Marketplace Money on NPR. The topic: helping youth become more engaged in philanthropy.

I’ve been thinking about philanthropy lately, the concept of giving money, raising money, and supporting charities. I’ve become more and more jaded by the way companies are using the idea of supporting a charity as a way to sell their product.

Take the whole yogurt sales pitch. “Buy our yogurt, send in the lid, and we’ll donate money to breast cancer research.” That’s great on the surface, but what’s their motivation, really? If it was to donate money to charity, the company would do just that. But by asking people to buy their product in order for the donation to be made, they’ve simply found a way to get people to buy their product and feel good about it – and in the end, the company sells more stuff. (And gets a tax write off for the donation they make, I’m sure.)

It’s all P.R. for the company. Because, in case you didn’t know, you can give money directly to breast cancer research without using a corporation as the middle man.

So when I listened to Marketplace Money, I already had that jaded perspective in mind. Just so we’re clear.

The story focused on a middle school group of teens in Arizona who were learning about philanthropy – generating grant money, giving out grant money, and raising money for charity. As part of an actual course in philanthropy (which, they believed, was better than reading literature and writing a report about it), the students decided to make and sell salsa to raise money for services for teens struggling with addiction. A great starter course in giving.

What struck me was one comment by the reporter:

“Organizers of the philanthropy courses in Arizona and California hope they can show young people that they don’t have to wait until they’re retired or wealthy to start giving.”

The question is: what’s the definition of giving? 

If Person A give $10 to Person B to give to Charity C, who actually did the giving? Is it giving if you’re simply collecting and then handing over someone else’s money? Or should we teaching kids about giving themselves – reaching into their own pockets and handing over money or taking time out of their busy schedules to do work for other people.

We’ve become a nation that looks to companies and corporations and big organizations to distribute the money and do the work, as if giving is all about handing over money to someone else and moving on with our lives. We send a text message, donate $10 to Haiti relief efforts, and pat ourselves on the back – while a year later, Haiti is still in a crisis.

One of the girls interviewed in the story even said she was considering a career in the field of philanthropy. What on earth would a career in philanthropy look like? Asking people for money that you then hand over to other people – after taking a cut for expenses and salaries, I assume.

Did you know, for example, that according to Charity Navigator, CEOs of large charitable organizations in the Northeast have a median income of $351,539 a year? And that the programs that pay the most to their CEOs are organizations for Education (median income $272,645); Public Benefit (median income $168,490);  Arts, Cultures and Humanities (median income $190,550).

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for giving to charities and understand that we need organizations to coordinate finances and resources. I support several charities that I believe are responsible and do work I couldn’t physically do myself in parts of the world where I am not. But I also think it’s time we started looking in the mirror for the solutions to some of the world’s problems – and we should start in our own backyards, reaching out to build relationships, to give to and serve the people right in front of us.

Let’s teach the kids to make a meal, drive someone to the doctor, baby sit, send a card, rake leaves. Not just sell stuff and send a check.

Because can we really love our neighbors if our giving is filtered through a middle man?


7 responses to “The commercialization of philanthropy

  1. What a cool class. I think activities like that will create givers of time and money. They’ll see directly the impact that their actions and money had. I want to do a project like that.

    I don’t mind the CEOs getting big paydays if they are worth it. Often they are running huge companies (nonprofit companies) and probably still could earn more if they worked in the private sector. I don’t expect someone who could be earning $250K to work for $80K.

    What is giving? How to give? Why give? Fascinating questions.

    • I struggle with the whole thing. On the one hand, I love the idea of teaching kids about philanthropy. On the other hand, I feel like society as a whole has developed a mentality that’s generally hand’s off when it comes to giving. Buy a product and the company donates money. Download this song for charity. Text $10 to be added to your phone bill. Without an actual hands on experience, I think kids are seeing the forest and missing the trees. I know from personal experience that had I not actually seen and smelled and touched poverty, I wouldn’t truly understand it. So we get a feel-good moment and move on without having been changed ourselves – because I really believe that true giving changes the giver and the reciever.
      As you know, I ponder this stuff a lot, LOL.

  2. Joanne, I subscribed to your blog (thank you Kelsey,) but the email I got sent me to a blog about dogs in New York somewhere. Is this weird? I’ll just bookmark you and read you that way–so much easier! Thanks, and thanks for your thoughts on philanthropy.


    • I do have my regular blog and my dog blog – but if you subscribe to this one you should get this one. Must be gremlins in the system. I’ll look into it. Thanks for letting me know!!

      • OK, I figured it out. The “mailing list” is actually for both of my blogs – kind of an overally “Joanne’s newsletter”. If you want to suscribe to just this blog’s posts, the RSS feed button is at the top. Sorry about that!


  3. Oh goodie! I’ve connected to amazing ladies. I spent the day eating day-old birthday cake and watching football, but it seems I still accomplished something. Go me!

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