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Just How Morally Hazardous is Cause Marketing for Most Charities?

The other day a reporter asked me if doing something unethical was ever a temptation for causes engaging in cause marketing.

These days plenty of skeptics would say that the question answers itself. Cause marketing, especially the transactional variety, is inherently unethical according to thinkers like Mara Einstein, a professor at Queens College in New York and author of Compassion, Inc.

Einstein’s basic argument against cause marketing goes like this: cause marketing is too simple and too far removed from complex problems to really do good. Moreover it desensitizes (her word) consumers in the process. Einstein’s book “takes us through the unseen ways in which large sums of consumer dollars go into corporate coffers rather than helping the less fortunate,” according to the publisher’s blurb.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I assume the blurb is referencing the fact that some cause marketing sponsors cap their donation amount and thereby benefit should people continue to buy their product after the promotion has ended. Because, obviously, “large sums of consumer dollars go into corporate coffers rather than helping the less fortunate” every day, whether or not there’s a cause attached.

Surprisingly, given the alienation from causes that Dr. Einstein decries in transactional cause marketing, she is nonetheless in favor of old-school corporate philanthropy. Although how a consumer is any closer to complex problems when General Electric writes a million-dollar check from its corporate foundation than when ten million people buy a carton of Yoplait isn’t clear to me.

But my response to the reporter went something like this. I happen to know that Joe Waters, my friend and colleague and author of Cause Marketing for Dummies is a happily married man and a proud father. But if you pressed him he might admit to being attracted to supermodel Heidi Klum, seen at the left. So in the strictest sense of the term, Heidi Klum is potentially a moral hazard for Joe.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that Joe has never met the woman. Let’s further say that he’s never had any interaction with her and, moreover, that he has no likely pathway to Heidi Klum. So, in the real world, Heidi Klum isn’t a temptation for Joe in a way that she might be for her happily-married driver or manager or gardener or someone else who has ready access to her.

In a like way, no more than 100 charities in the United States almost certainly account for 80 percent of the cause marketing dollars raised. I’m pretty confident that the largest 20 cause-marketing charities account for more than 50 percent of the cause marketing dollars raised. Those 100 charities are actually in the position to be tempted to take unethical actions when it comes to cause marketing just because the deals they do are for millions of dollars. Real Heidi Klum money.

Let me put the scale of this another way; if I listed all the top 100 charities that do cause marketing and put in still-readable 8 point type and printed it out on a sheet of 8.5” x 11” paper, I could cover the whole list with my hand. It's just not that many charities.

Is unethical behavior in cause marketing a cause for concern for those 100 charities? You bet it is. So their management and boards have to be ever-vigilant.

Is it possible that the thousands of causes that split up the remaining 20 percent of cause marketing dollars could also put themselves in moral hazard with regard to cause marketing? Of course.

But like the pretend temptation that Heidi Klum poses for Joe Waters, it’s not quite the same.

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