Blog Post

Let's Stop Pretending We Can Shop for a Good Cause

Clovis Thorn

Black Friday makes my skin crawl. What was once a day marginally dedicated to gift buying has morphed into the high holy day of consumerism. Shopping has been pitched to us as our civic duty, a duty I will gladly fail to uphold.

In a new twist, the nation’s charities have come together to create Giving Tuesday, an effort to create a national day of giving at the start of the holiday season, this year on December 3. As the chief fundraiser at the Drug Policy Alliance I have to say I like the idea. Giving Tuesday is a worthy response to the craven consumerism of the last few days and serves as a reminder that charity is an essential part of Christmas and other holiday celebrations.

But I’m already seeing a disturbing trend. I’m approached constantly by commercial vendors who want to enter into agreements with the Drug Policy Alliance to offer some product or service to our supporters. It’s called “cause marketing.” Under these arrangements our supporters will get a special product or a discount and a small donation will be made to DPA for each transaction. It seems like a win-win—sellers sell,  buyers buy, and there’s more money for the cause.

But wait, there’s more - and it’s not good.

I’ve resisted these offers and here’s why: There is often much more value for the corporate partner—in marketing exposure and sales—than there is to the charity. Only the largest charities are earning significant funds from these partnerships. Most are making a few hundred dollars a year if they’re lucky.

Not only is the charity’s share of the pie very low, but research shows that the real threat is psychological. A potential donor buys a product through one of these programs and feels his charitable deed is done. The “donor” spends $50 on a product, and in his mind he just gave $50 to his favorite charity, while the organization will receive just a small fraction of that. And on top of that, cause marketing can also decrease consumer happiness.  Cause marketing takes the joy out of giving, perhaps because the buyer knows they are being inherently selfish, the opposite of the warm feeling of generosity enshrined in a gift to charity.

Some corporations give very generously to charity. The effective ones do it at arm’s length, without any kind of you-scratch-our-back-we’ll-scratch-yours agreement.

So what can you do? Stop pretending you can shop for a good cause. The best thing you can do this holiday season for the causes you support is to make a direct donation to their general operating funds. Look into the charities you support. Make sure they are well run and honest. Then give as generously as you can. You’ll have nothing to show for it but the satisfaction that you did something truly valuable to make the world a better place, which is what the season is supposed to be all about.

Clovis Thorn is the managing director of Development for the Drug Policy Alliance.

View more blog posts.