Professor Eikenberry, I Respectfully Disagree

A few years back a colleague and I wangled a trip to northern Italy to speak on the topic of cause marketing. One of the other presenters was an American like us, but all of the attendees were European, predominantly Italian. We were there preaching the big, bold cause marketing of the type practiced at Children’s Miracle Network and it plainly made a few of the attendees uncomfortable. Some openly told us that they found the practice gauche.

We finished our presentation with some Q&A, which lasted past our appointed time. So we took the discussion into the hallway. I remember in particular one fellow from Rome. He was the executive director of a children’s charity that he felt had potential popular appeal but which had fallen out of favor politically and had lost funding. Domestic charities in Italy and much of continental Europe are funded directly by local and national governments. He needed a new fundraising approach that could make up for some of the funding that was no longer coming from the government and thought that maybe cause marketing could help fill the void.

I thought of that Italian executive director as I read Professor Angela Eikenberry’s censure of cause marketing in the Summer 2009 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review.

(That's Professor Eikenberry on the left. Read Joe Water's well-considered response to Professor Eikenberry here.)

Called ‘The Hidden Costs of Cause Marketing,’ Professor Eikenberry’s thesis is threefold.

That cause marketing:
Professor Eikenberry also openly wonders if cause marketing doesn’t negatively affect the donations of time and money to worthy charitable organizations.

I’ll address that first. All of the evidence Professor Eikenberry cites is anecdotal or impertinent. It would be a simple matter to compare Americans’ donations to charities before the age of cause marketing (say 1983) versus giving after the age of cause marketing. The necessary data is available from The Center on Philanthropy at the University of Indiana and from IEG.

My bet is that even though the funds raised by cause marketing is a flyspeck compared to total charitable giving in the United States, that overall giving has increased since the coming forth of cause marketing.

I’m not implying causation here. Quite the opposite. I expect it’s likely that modern Americans are more attuned as donors of money and time than their cohorts were in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. My guess is that instead of driving charitable fundraising up or down, cause marketing is just enjoying the ride.

But on to Professor Eikenberry’s main points.

I confess I don’t understood what Professor Eikenberry means when she writes that cause marketing ‘individualizes solutions to collective social problems.’ Or, at least, I don’t understand how cause marketing is any more guilty of individualizing solutions than normal charitable giving when something north of 80 percent of all charitable donations in the United States come from individuals and bequests.

If I buy a carton of Yoplait, send in the lid and thereby make possible a 10 cent donation to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, how exactly is that gift more individualized than when an annual donor, say, writes a check for $200 to a hospital, or a ballet company, or a church, or the scouts, or a food bank, or a disease or relief charity? Especially since that annual donor was almost certainly solicited for that gift. Nevermind that the solicitation didn’t take place in our modern temples to consumerism, the grocery stores, which Professor Eikenberry evidently deplores.

Cause marketing today is lot like the American form of the democratic republic. It’s loud and brassy and more or less effective. Would that we could be ruled by the benign but well-born and ethical king or queen that Aristotle famously endorsed. But, alas, this is the government we have.

Likewise, American charities that can’t make their case to their stakeholders are in a world of trouble. Our system of funding charities, as constituted, has all the pity of Darwinian natural selection. Cause marketing is a reflection of that reality, not a cause of it. Certainly our system does not feature a benign tyrant whose job it is to assign the public’s resources to the neediest of causes.

Is it regrettable that St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is effective not only at its mission, but at cause marketing (and, really, all elements of fundraising)? I don’t see how.

And as my Italian friend demonstrated, even in the advanced welfare states in Europe, where government officials do decide what resources go to which charities, good causes get defunded because of politics. It’s not my specialty, but I’d be surprised if in fact there aren’t scads of state-supported charities in Europe that are popular with government officials and bad at their missions.

Finally, my American colleague, the fellow who I had co-presented with in Italy is now a university fundraiser. About 18 months ago the third oldest university in England brought him and another fellow-countryman, to inject a little American-style fundraising savvy into the university’s sleepy development office. This in a country where government funding has always underwritten the entire higher education system.

Even during the current economic climate he’s killing his fundraising goals there. That’s because his donors recognize what Professor Eikenberry seemingly does not. So long as it’s not ill-gotten, it’s not where the money comes from or who the upstart fundraiser is that counts. It’s how the money is used.

Labels: , , , , , , ,