What Do Nonprofits Do When Commercial Brands Are Viewed As Social Changers?

“Charity begins at home.”

An old adage with layers of meaning, depending on your message’s intent, but perhaps never before as relevant as it is today.

Based on a recent analysis by Y&R’s BAV Group (BrandAsset Valuator), “Purposeful Brands” (that is, brands that have attached social action to their DNA) in the US resonate more strongly with millennials than the traditional list of powerful nonprofits.

Ben and Jerry’s, Target and Ikea are seen as more socially exciting, authentic and active than the customary list of nonprofit power brands such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Habitat for Humanity and the American Red Cross. In other words, charity begins or is at least connected to your home and your use of brands.

Lest you think only nonprofits in the US are suffering from a decline in brand value, I refer you to an article written recently by my colleague Jon Sharpe for Fast Company:

In a recent Ipsos Mori survey, charity chief executives were grouped in the same level of mistrust as trade union officials, bankers, and business leaders, with only 44% of the public trusting them to tell the truth. Trust, like privacy and truth, is fast becoming an outdated notion, a mission critical flaw when trust lies at the heart of great brands and charitable fundraising.

A recent analysis report by BAV, a proprietary equity and engagement model, with IBM Watson and academic partners, which analyzes social media across the spectrum, found that:

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This finding in the US dovetails nicely with a study done in the UK, as quoted by Jon Sharpe in his article:

Dr. Irene Bruna Seu, Reader in the Dept. of Psychosocial Studies at Birbeck, University of London, and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Her comments are based on the findings from a four-year research project, discussed in Caring in Crisis which she co-authored with Shani Orgad, LSE.

“We found evidence of a deep crisis of trust between NGOs and their public. People distrust NGOs when they are perceived to operate as businesses, in competition with each other, and manipulating people to make them donate. Many felt that ‘all they want is my money.’ Most people, even those committed to humanitarianism, talked of NGOs constantly ‘hitting on the same note’ which causes saturation and a hardening of attitudes towards giving, and NGOs in general. People are angered by this approach and likened most NGOs to marketers (self-serving and manipulative), in contrast with their wished for model of NGOs as Good Samaritans (altruistic and good people).”

Ergo…my ability to solve the problem I represent and my total transparency in reporting where the funds go are less important than the way I am able to share and communicate my actual concern.

Ergo (I love that word)…a for-profit company that takes on a cause—Tom’s giving shoes to the shoeless or Warby Parker giving glasses to the deserving—is seen as more authentic than the charity that constantly bombards you with horrific pictures and endless messages for donation. You see, we understand what a for-profit company does and how they make money—marketing being the driver. Yet despite the transactional reality of buying, many of us do have emotional ties to the brands we buy, but we seem to have trouble developing similar ties to the charities.

Dr. Sau, as quoted by Jon said:

“Although monetary donations are essential in enabling NGOs to operate, they are often a form of fleeting participation. We found strong evidence of the negative ‘collateral damage’ from this transactional approach to engaging the public. We call it the ‘hit and run’ model of humanitarian communication; it presents the viewer with an emergency scenario, through emotionally charged images and contents, asking the viewer to donate money so that NGOs can respond to the emergency on their behalf. Members of the public feel ‘hit’ emotionally and then disregarded, while NGOs deliver the help.”

Having said that, though, BAV shows that the majority of discussions around giving point to the importance of urgency and solvability:

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The difference is that in social media it is people talking about the issue and the brands, and not the brands talking about themselves—a critical and important difference when that inevitable crisis does hit.

A case in point is the recent groundswell of donations made to a number of US nonprofit activist organizations after the recent election of President Trump. From The Washington Post:

For many of the organizations that have received an influx of new funds in the past three weeks, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving—a day designated since 2012 as a time to be charitable—would have been their big end-of-the-year fundraising push. But by Tuesday they had already filled their coffers with more money than they’d ever received in such a short amount of time.

Most of it has happened organically. While some groups did put out a call for donations immediately after the election, others were completely taken off guard by the sudden contributions.

The article continues:

…the ACLU received a flood of donations unlike anything the 100-year-old organization had ever seen. Since the election, it has received more than $15 million from 241,480 donors, according to Mark Wier, the ACLU’s chief development officer. About half of that, $7.2 million, came in the five days after Nov. 8. By comparison, after the 2012 presidential election, the ACLU received $27,806 in the same amount of time, Wier said.

“It’s unprecedented in our history,” said Wier. “The response is inspiring. We’re seeing people do bake sales for us; we’re getting envelopes with cash — we’ve never seen that before. We’re getting people reaching out saying, ‘I want to volunteer. What can I do?’”

The Atlantic reports on the same phenomenon:

But perhaps the most notable (and most concrete) action to follow the end of the divisive election season has been a surge in donations to various organizations whose agendas counter those proposed by President-elect Donald Trump. In recent days, groups that champion causes like civil liberties and women’s health as well as focus on immigration rights and anti-discrimination initiatives have seen record responses to the election, in the form of contributions and volunteer applications.

In both articles, there is an emphasis on the desire of people to be involved, to take action, to be a part of the solution and not just send a check. The success of purposeful brands is core to that insight—I’m going to buy those Pampers, that pair of shoes, those new glasses if I can be a partner in social change as well—I’m in.

Call it cultural currency…building a brand’s value by creating a new currency of engagement that links the brand, the consumer and a culturally relevant cause in a manner that actually and believably can solve a stated problem. I might not be able to feed all the hungry, but I can give many children shoes or glasses. I might not be able to create world peace, but I can believably help to raise awareness of those who might, as Burger King did in their now-famous McWhopper campaign (full disclosure, we partnered, proudly, in that award-winning and awareness-raising campaign).

Pokémon Go, an already faded fad, is off our radar as is the once-all-pervasive Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014 for ALS—which I, along with millions of others, participated in. And while I can be as cynical as the rest (and there were many cynics out there, including myself who kept begging people not to forget to mention why they were dousing themselves), the effect of participation has been and remains far-reaching. From The New Yorker:

Silly though the Ice Bucket Challenge may seem now, it had far-reaching effects. It raised a reported two hundred and twenty million dollars worldwide for A.L.S. organizations; in just eight weeks, the American A.L.S. Association received thirteen times as much in contributions as what it had in the whole of the preceding year. Public awareness rose: the challenge was the fifth most popular Google search for all of 2014. Brian Fredrick, the vice-president for communications and development at the A.L.S. Association, told me, “The challenge suddenly made a lot of people who probably didn’t even know who Lou Gehrig was aware of the disease. It really changed the face of A.L.S. forever.”

More concretely, the money raised has led to more research and more spending on patient care. The A.L.S. Association has tripled its annual funding for research. “The research environment is dramatically different from what it was,” Barbara Newhouse, the association’s C.E.O., told me. “We’re seeing research that’s really moving the needle not just on the causes of the disease but also on treatments and therapies.” Last summer, a team from Johns Hopkins published a paper in Science that was hailed as a breakthrough in A.L.S. research; the team members said that funding from the challenge had accelerated the pace of their work.

And the article concludes:

It’s true that the vast majority of the people who made A.L.S. donations during the challenge haven’t done so again. But contributions to the A.L.S. Association have stayed about twenty-five per cent higher than in the year before the challenge, and the average donor age dropped from above fifty to thirty-five. The campaign was an enormous success with millennials, a demographic most charities have had a hard time reaching. The young are the demographic least likely to make charitable donations, and millennials seem more resistant to traditional charity appeals than previous generations.

BAV research confirms this thought:

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And points to a potentially troubling trend:

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The fear being that the younger generation will not follow in the footsteps of their predecessors.

Yet let’s be clear…social media alone does not a cause make, nor can it guarantee future success. ALS managed because of the authenticity of the entire chain.

Remember Kony? Probably just vaguely or not at all

And so, 2012 came and went and Joseph Kony was never captured. Weapons and troops were deployed, politicians and celebrities from Europe and the US made statements and offered their public support to the campaign launched by the Invisible Children organisation, which featured one of the most popular films of the year, Kony2012, and yet, Kony somehow managed to remain at large.

And the Invisible Children Organization has suffered deeply from criticism about how their money was spent and the amount allocated to “marketing.”

The most viral video of its time, praised for the way it was going to change NGOs and causes…yet gone the way of Pokémon Go.

A report published by Indiana University details the new giving environment:

Consumers are embracing social causes with the aim of helping to enrich lives and make the world a better place. People are giving more than ever before in terms of helping strangers, donating money and volunteering their time.

Euromonitor International’s GCT Survey of 2016 found that 53% of all respondents across all countries felt they could make a difference to the world through their choices and actions. Millennials were the most optimistic; the feeling of being able to make a difference to the world declines with age.

Online crowdfunding is an increasingly popular way to give, especially among young consumers. This allows people to bypass big charities and give small donations directly to issues they care about.

Consumers are increasingly making use of social media to promote the causes that matter to them via hashtags on microblogging platforms; viral campaigns; fundraising efforts; and online petition platforms.

The drive to change the world for the better has boosted demand for responsible brands. CSR efforts are under greater scrutiny than ever, and “greenwashing” is exposed by information-savvy consumers and condemned on social media.

Consumers are voting with their wallets by paying more attention to product labels and making ethical purchasing choices, including vegetarian, organic, locally produced, fair trade and other natural and ethical products.

Think about this as the report continues:

Euromonitor International’s GCT Survey of 2016 found that 53% of all respondents across all countries felt they could make a difference to the world through their choices and actions.

The feeling of being able to make a difference to the world declines with age. Indeed, young people aged 15-29 years were the most likely to agree with the statement in all three years, a substantial 60% in 2016.

Among those aged 60+, feeling empowered to make a difference was true of fewer than four in ten people.

Never before has the confluence of public and private aligned in what might be a perfect storm to achieve true and lasting change around the world.

“If we freed the humanitarian sector to use the tools of capitalism, we could bring private ingenuity to bear on those problems, and we wouldn’t have to depend on the government to fill the gaps.” -Dan Pallotta, entrepreneur, author and humanitarian activist

NGOs and nonprofits are able to make use of the tools of the business world and harness innovation and creative thinking in ways they never did before.

“The responsibility for business is enormous. Small companies need to adopt small, local problems. Big companies need to adopt national problems. Bigger companies to adopt international problems.” -Richard Branson, business magnate, investor and philanthropist

Commercial brands are using their profits and consumer connection to help solve societal issues in authentic and powerful ways.

Bottom line…the viral video is not enough, the hammering home of constant urgent needs no longer resonates, and in a world of micro-interest, I need to know where my money goes and, more importantly, how I can make a true difference in the world.

It’s easy to be a cynic…a lot harder to #changetheworld.

Clicks and shares and likes no longer cut it as a measurement of success.

My view is that the younger population is seeing charity for what it should be—justice—a fix to the social order and not just (as important as it is) a fund-raiser or networking opportunity:

“It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world.” Mary Wollstonecraft

And therein lies the insight that can drive profit while fixing the world. Brands take heed and lovers of brands take heed. And together who knows what you can accomplish.

What do you think?

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