07/21/2010 03:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What's Wrong With Chase Community Giving?

The Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones notwithstanding, the problem with the Chase Community Giving program isn't that it lets "civilians" -- non-expert, non-critics -- decide which theater companies deserve a $20,000 one-time no-strings grant. The problem is that it pretends to do that -- Let the People Decide! -- while actually turning theater companies into marketing satellites of Chase Bank. Institutions poor and weak enough to be moved by a $20,000 carrot recite the bank's name relentlessly to their audiences. That's a lot of advertising for very little money. Of course, all corporate giving is advertising, but this is of a special, insidious kind.

It's called "crowd-source philanthropy," but it's not philanthropy at all: it's "crowd-manipulation marketing." Chase has gotten hundreds if not thousands of little charities to demand that their audiences provide contact information to the bank and subject themselves to commercial targeting for the good of the cause.

These crowd-manipulation marketing programs (pioneered by Pepsi and American Express,
doubtless with many more corporate behemoths yet to come) also set up a system which rewards the nonprofits with the greatest Internet presence or savvy, which is not the same as giving the money to the neediest, or best, or most diverse, group of people doing important work in society.

Again, the issue isn't who gets to define "best", it's whether the agencies competing for that
designation have a fair and equal opportunity to receive it. Upper-middle-class people may imagine that "everyone" has access to the Internet, but in fact if you reward clicks and responses to e-mail and Facebook postings, you reward organizations with wealthy white audiences and disadvantage those whose audiences are nonwhite and/or poor. Way to magnify the digital divide. Way to make sure that the rich get richer and the poor have babies.

This lazy and manipulative approach to corporate giving also diverts the attention of nonprofits
from real fundraising -- which involves long-term relationships and commitment to mission -- to point-and-click fundraising, which costs "donors" nothing and therefore gives them no stake in the institution.

The argument about who's entitled to judge art is a side-show, doubtless one Chase would be happy to have theaters and critics debating from here to eternity. Meanwhile, the bank laughs all the way to -- the bank.