Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mingled Motives: Is Business Philanthropy Little More Than Good PR?

With the holiday season whipping into full swing and charitable giving on the minds of many, Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik asks some thought-provoking questions in today's column. Best of all, Hiltzik took a moment to interview our own Lalia Helmer and contribute her comments. What a cool shout-out!

Hiltzik asks, very rightfully, whether large-scale corporate philanthropy and "caused-based marketing" efforts amount to much more than a clever profit-booster, referencing among others the Product Red campaign, American Express' efforts, as well as a controversial program launched by Skechers USA this past summer, one that's widely believed to have copied the beloved TOMS Shoes model.

If you'll recall, Lalia cited the Skechers effort as an example of "how not to do business philanthropy." Hiltzik, in turn, fleshes out further thoughts on the topic.

The larger question, though, and one that transcends the TOMS/Skechers debate, remains: are the motives of heavily advertised philanthropic efforts somehow polluted when they simultaneously boost the bottom line of a business? It's a fascinating discussion, and a complex one, I think.

Here's Hiltzik's conclusion:

I'm always a bit suspicious when big corporations try to enlist me in their charity campaigns. My feeling is that if they're inclined to be generous, good for them, but leave me to my own philanthropies. That way, there's no confusion about when they're being genuinely good-hearted, and when they're just faking.

I certainly see his perspective. Then again, it's inherent to the nature of capitalism for businesses to enhance their bottom line by giving the consumer what they want, be it products or corporate practices. In our fast-evolving twenty-first century climate, there can be little question that consumers desire a more socially-conscious form of business. In that sense, many companies with an evolved sense of larger obligation thrive because they are responsive to the public. So why not advertise that fact just as they would, say, a superior product? Though certain efforts and organizations may be dubious, on the whole business philanthropy, at its most effective, can be a win-win.

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