Don’t Be Fooled: ‘Big Philanthropy’ Isn’t About Helping the Disadvantaged

Where a few would even notice.

The organizers of this media moment were most concerned with image. It was important to be certain the news cameras captured the size of the check and, of course, the amount printed on its face. The recipients and, more importantly, the CEO and other executives of the company handing over this lump of cash needed to look their best, smile their broadest, and gaze at the camera with a faux sense of humility. All-the-while, the entire moment was meant to herald the company, the provider of this money, as a hero.

A philanthropic effort.

P.T. Barnum -world renowned 19th century entertainer who established the first traveling circus that bore his name- is commonly credited with the quote, ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity,’ though there’s no actual evidence he said it. There have been others throughout the past century who have stated similar adages, including, ‘All publicity is good if it is intelligent,’ originally published by The Atlantic Constitution, a U.S. newspaper in 1915 and, ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,’ by Oscar Wilde.

The point is that many of these press junkets where major companies and even some small to mid-sized businesses are delivering cash to what are often referred to as ‘worthy causes’ have little to do with philanthropy and almost everything to do with image.

Company image.

What Thoughts Do People Have About Companies and ‘Generous’ Donations?

When Jesus taught his followers to not draw attention to themselves when giving to the needy (“Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing”), he was warning against the self-serving nature that boastfulness would bring. People who need to sound trumpets and make a big ‘show’ of their large donations and significant gifts to the poor or downtrodden or people overcoming natural disasters aren’t doing it from the goodness of their heart; they’re doing it to receive the accolades, the ‘atta-boys’ or ‘atta-girls.’

They’re doing it for the publicity.

“Did you hear that Joe Smith gave all that money to such-and-such charity?”

“Oh, yes. He’s such a generous person.”

“Did you hear that Sally Jones donated a car to such-and-such shelter?”

“I wish I could be like her. She’s so amazing.”

The focus of this type of ‘philanthropy’ shifts away from the cause and those in need to the one giving. More attention turns toward the company (in this case) offering free money or food or clothing or whatever is needed within the community or somewhere in the world. And before you know it, people are talking about the company, not those suffering.

It garners great press and that is precisely the point for so many of these seemingly ‘philanthropic’ efforts. Sure, the money is useful in some situations, but the public display is more about press attention and marketing than the cause the donation was intended to benefit.

“But People Are Being Helped! What’s the Problem?”

Money does make a difference in helping some people. For a time. But in most cases there are serious problems with ‘non-profit’ organizations that are advertised as helping any number of people in need, protecting the environment, advocating for animal rights, and so forth. A growing number of these ‘charities’ providing services utilize the majority of funds for “administrative expenses”.

While we have no desire to name specific names, just to give some clarity to this point, a charity that advertises help to families of children with autism has overhead of about 85 percent. That means less than 15 percent of each donation actually goes to help those in need. Another charity provides about 3 percent of every donation to its advertised cause, and it’s marketed as a way to make wishes come true to children with cancer (and no, we’re not referencing the Make a Wish Foundation, which is a legitimate charity that truly benefits kids, but rather a copycat that’s been fooling people for years).

Some of the rest goes to administrative costs, marketing, and other efforts. So, just because money is being handed over to some organization or to some location in need, it doesn’t mean people are truly being helped. But the main focus of the media attention is on the company or business leader making the donation.

What About Other Philanthropic Efforts?

The New Yorker recently reported on a young entrepreneur, Ankur Jain, in its article, Insanely Good: Making Big Business Out of Social Philanthropy. One of the many ‘causes’ Mr. Jain is working on involves the difficulty some people have securing housing because of high security deposit requirements (some regions of the U.S. require prospective renters to come up with first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and a security deposit usually equal to a full month’s rent, if not more). His effort aims to develop an insurance market where renters would pay a nominal monthly fee and, should anything go wrong, such as the renter vacating the premises before the end of the lease term or damage occurred, the insurance would cover the expenses for the landlord.

That may sound like a wonderful idea, especially for those who have struggled with this very issue, but it’s necessary to dig deeper into the issue. It creates a new insurance market. Soon, instead of the majority of renters ultimately getting their full security deposit back when they move out, they will end up paying hundreds and more likely thousands of dollars into ‘insurance’ just to save on the initial security. They’ll never see that money again. In the long run, renters will lose.

Who will benefit?

Whoever gets in on the insurance racket. Someone may ask, “Well, isn’t it okay for businesses to make money from good ideas?”

Absolutely. Completely, positively, yes. But that’s not philanthropy. That’s capitalism. And that’s the point.

Many of the companies boasting about their wonderful donations and philanthropic efforts are riding a social justice wave of political mobility and see the dollar signs in their future. To many of them, it’s not first about helping those in need, but rather gaining positive press or developing a new system upon which to earn money at some point in the future.

It’s an investment in something other than just philanthropy.

Sometimes, Great Advice Holds True No Matter the Era

If businesses or individuals truly want to be philanthropic, with no intention of personal gain, they would give in secret. They wouldn’t trumpet their efforts with press junkets and media spotlight; they’d simply do what they do because they want to and recognize the serious need for help.

The next time you hear about a company doing some ‘wonderful’ thing for charity or relief efforts or something else, look behind the curtain. The Wizard is likely there, pulling on the sliders and turning the knobs, all hoping to win bigger in the end. There’s often something to be gained by the effort.

Don’t be fooled. Not all corporate philanthropy is truly that. And there isn’t a problem if people get some measure of help when it’s needed most, but simply understand that positive press and reputation holds power for businesses today.

Semilimes is a growing platform of free business tools, and while it takes philanthropy serious and understands the importance of supporting those in need, it takes a different approach, one that doesn’t copy the big press conferences corporations hold to boast of their good deeds.

What semilimes is doing runs beneath the surface. It gets into the trenches and gets its hands, feet, and face dirty. It aims to lift people up, give them a voice, and truly change the world, and it doesn’t need false bravado to do it. We’ll unpack this idea and much more in a series of follow-up articles and interviews with semilimes CEO Ronald Vuillemin.

Would your company ever donate to a worthy cause without the pomp and circumstance of media attention?

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