The trouble with corporate charity

By Deborah O’Connor

As times have become tougher in recent years for so many families and governments have pared their mandates and services down to the bone, Big Business has stepped up to the plate in a very big way, supporting all sorts of charities all over the world with campaigns and donations that are quite impressive. By applying their considerable talents and resources, they have made a huge difference in the charitable sectors they support.

But is this trend one that will ultimately benefit society over the long term? It’s no secret that corporations exist to make profit, and their mantra is all about maximizing profit at minimum cost. When these companies get involved in charitable work, they enjoy the boost in their public image that their philanthropy generates and the value of all that free publicity is considerable. There’s even a real cash incentive for them in the tax reductions they receive for their donations. For the charities they help the results are dramatic, just too good to pass up in this economy when individual donations are faltering.

The move to what’s called “cause marketing” has proved to be even more profitable for corporations. When they agree with a charity to attach the charity’s name and cause to a specific product in exchange for a percentage of the profit from sales, it’s been shown that sales increase enough to offset the percentage they’re donating back. In the case of the American campaign to end breast cancer, called the Cure, the organization neglected to get a copyright on their pink ribbon and now many businesses are using that logo without any legal obligation to donate anything. The customer buying that product, however, has no way to know that.

Take the case of Coca Cola, which has aligned itself very publicly with the World Wildlife Fund in recent years and uses their logo front and centre at every opportunity. Critics say it’s all just a cover to distract attention from their record of decimating the environments of third world countries where they build new plants. In one region of India where Coke set up shop and started taking up to a million litres of water a day out of the ground, water sources the locals needed dried up dramatically, resulting in ongoing protests for years. By 2008 the government there took action, ordering that the Coke plant be closed. The economic benefits of having them there were outweighed by the increasing plight of the local villagers who couldn’t grow their crops anymore. We don’t hear too much about that kind of thing though, we only know there’s a big WWF logo on our coke bottle with a cute polar bear beside it.

Perhaps before we all rush to support these “good corporate citizens” we need to look beyond the cute logos and ask ourselves if this is really how we want to see charities funded. Where does government support fit in this discussion? Isn’t it their job to fund research to end cancer and other medical conditions? Should our scientests have to shmooze with corporate executives to gain favour and funds? Is this really the right way to meet human need? What about accountability, consistency, and fairness? Surely the needs of people all over the world shouldn’t be reduced to whether some corporation thinks they’re suitable for a good public relations campaign. We can do better, much better.