07/06/2011 05:45 pm ET | Updated Sep 05, 2011

Corporate Philanthropy: The New Popularity Contest

You've surely seen them appear in your Facebook news feed, camouflaged amongst status updates. Nominate your favorite charity for a chance to win $200,000! Pepsi is giving away millions to fund refreshing ideas! Corporations have, not surprisingly, turned their marketing lens to the social networks, and they're running their corporate giving programs like a race for prom king. As a former prom king (fine, but I was in the running) and current Director in the Non Profit development arena, I find myself wondering about the legitimacy of this type of corporate philanthropy.

See, while we non-profits are struggling for foundation, corporate and individual dollars in a highly competitive, need-based environment, major corporate players are asking us to run for student council president. Too often, it's the popular kid, and not the most deserving one, who wins.

This type of giving poses definite ethical questions. That corporate marketing divisions are using social responsibility as a way to boost the bottom line is the least of these. The aforementioned $200,000 is actually but a part of the $5 million Chase claims to have donated on their Community Giving Program Facebook Page (it's unclear by their presentation whether that's for one or all of the last three years). Any way you cut it, this number doesn't even reach 1 percent of their 2011 first quarter profits alone. (It's .09 percent of the 5.56 billion of FY11 first quarter profits, in case you were wondering).

There's another advantage for Chase to hand out money this way: they're splashed all over your Facebook news feed as good-hearted bankers with whom you might just want to do business. But are these dollars solely devoted to helping charitable organizations, or are they just another way of advertising? A multi-billion dollar corporation shouldn't be allowed to write-off advertising as a charitable contribution.

Another major problem posed by this contest model is that those considered at-risk -- the neediest and most in need of charity -- are not always those with the loudest voice. At-risk populations are often lucky to find Internet access, not to mention find friends who can click a "like" button on Facebook. Meanwhile the Non Profits who serve them would rather write a grant and be evaluated by program officers (who hold expertise in specific giving areas) than waste time running in a popularity contest.

If government wants to make the move to cut social programs, shouldn't our corporations step up to fill this gap? We rely on them for health care and retirement already. Don't we have the right to insist that large corporations fund other areas where the government falls short, especially when part of the reason for the shortfall is a heavily funded lobby committed to locating tax breaks so that corporations can avoid paying taxes altogether?

Those in charge of allotting corporate, shareholder dollars to charitable organizations have an ethical and fiduciary obligation to uphold best-practices when giving. A corporate community-giving program that wants to approach this benchmark must evaluate its applicants thoroughly in a transparent process. Putting a blast out on twitter for nominations is a great way to learn of new charities, but reviewing just the top five serves only the cool kids. It shouldn't be too much to ask that corporations conduct their Departments of Corporate Social Responsibility in, well, a socially responsible manner.