Hard Sell

A friend of mine runs a well-respected rehab center for addicts and alcoholics. I say, “well-respected,” and not “well-known,” because outside of those in the court system and the rehabilitation and social work communities, nobody pays much attention to what she and her staff do. It’s not the kind of celebrity rehab center that attracts the Lindsay Lohans of the world. It’s a gritty inner-city facility where a chronic offender lands after a traffic accident or a near-death experience from an overdose.

“We’re not puppies and kids,” my friend says, drawing a contrast with organizations that can capture the sympathies (and dollars) of the general public through heartwarming pictures and stories. Hers is a place with locked doors. The client list is confidential and few “alumni” think to support the agency. It’s a challenging place where important things happen out of sight.

Getting people to donate to organizations providing core services to people in need is a tough sell. When given the choice, a lot of people would rather support animal shelters than homeless shelters. This is not to critique the donation patterns of sincere individuals. But we need to recognize that some causes are vastly more marketable than others.

No one is more aware of the relative marketability of different causes than corporate America. In the good old days (like, ten or twenty years ago) corporations ran robust giving programs out of their philanthropic departments. Now, more and more, corporate charitable giving comes out of marketing departments, with a special focus on “cause-related marketing.” That’s where companies donate a portion of their profits (in most cases they don’t specify how much) from the sale of particular items, thereby encouraging consumers to buy a certain kind of detergent or electronic device. The charity’s logo goes on the product box; shoppers feel virtuous in making the purchase; and the corporation receives both a profit and an enhanced image.

Another common practice is for the corporation to sponsor an event – a walk-a-thon, say – that will raise money for a particular cause… though only after its considerable expenses are deducted.

This story is told well by Mara Einstein in her new book, Compassion, Inc. Einstein describes the bait-and-switch chicanery and meager charitable impact of cause-related marketing. She also notes how many good local charities get left by the wayside in this process: they can’t deliver the scale or branding power to compete with the large, national “hypercharities” (as she calls them) like Feeding America and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. And Einstein describes how even certain diseases attract vastly more corporate support than others.

For example, we can all attest that the battle against breast cancer has attracted enormous corporate attention. October had been designated breast-cancer awareness month. During October there are the walks, of course (including those sponsored by the now-tarnished Susan G. Komen); there are the ubiquitous pink ribbons; even NFL players wear pink football shoes and wipe their hands on pink towels. Corporations compete to be connected to this effort.

Einstein explains how this all came about. Without minimizing the ravages of breast cancer, she points out that it is the fourth-leading cause of death among women – not, as many suppose, given the attention, the first. Breast cancer is a “blameless” disease: unlike lung cancer or cirrhosis of the liver, it has no association with the personal behavior of the patient. Einstein notes, moreover, that this disease evokes a particularly strong response among women, who also happen to be the key consumer group that the marketers are targeting. Breast cancer – from a marketing standpoint – really sells.

On the other hand, asks Einstein, have you seen many walks to cure Alzheimer’s? Do corporations line up to associate themselves with that terrifying mental debilitation that affects one in eight older Americans? Of course not. Mental deterioration clearly doesn’t sell.

This is not to mock those organizations that are more naturally marketable. Nor is it to say that organizations working on less readily marketable issues should stop trying to make themselves as attractive as possible. (I have helped market community economic development for more than a decade. It can be done, and it’s important to do so.) But people should recognize that some issues need strong support specifically because they are both critically important and easily ignored by corporations and individual donors.

Which brings me back to my friend running the drug rehab center. Most of the center’s money comes from governmental sources, which makes sense. The public at large has a vested interest in helping addicts and alcoholics cure themselves and become productive citizens. Paying for treatment is a wise investment of tax dollars.

Do keep this in mind when, in this election season, some politicians argue (as they already have) that the government should get out of the business of helping the needy.  They will say that nonprofits can pick up the slack and deal with these issues more effectively than government. They’ll say that private individuals, if left alone, will naturally give their money to the most worthy causes, without having the government involved.

The fact is that even the most optimistic projections for increased charitable giving by the private sector could not make up for wide-scale defunding by government. And private funds will never flow freely into the drug rehab centers and homeless shelters – places another friend of mine refers to as having a “high ‘ick’ factor.”

H.L. Mencken wrote, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Beware of simple and wrong answers on funding solutions for complex social problems. Especially in an election year. And especially for causes that simply don’t sell.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

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