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Exploding Philanthropy: Consumer Brands Key Giving

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When you've seen beyond yourself, then you may find, peace of mind is waiting there.
-- George Harrison

The May 2006 issue of Conde Nast's upscale consumer magazine Vanity Fair may well be remembered as a key chapter in the long history of American philanthropy. Along with the release of the We Are the World video on MTV, the explosion of rubbery "Live Strong" wristbands, and the application of pink ribbons on everything from yogurt cups to baseball caps, the special Green Issue of Vanity Fair etched another big scratch in the timeline of the ever-expanding nonprofit sector.

There on the cover were two movie stars George Clooney and Julia Roberts along with Al Gore and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The issue-oriented tableau was tinged in green, against a green backdrop of what appears to be lettuce, with Ms. Roberts draped in a silky, leaf-life gown of verdant splendor. All of this was arranged by editor Graydon Carter in the noble cause of environmentalism; or to be more precise, in the cause of making the environmentalist movement cool.

Clearly Vanity Fair recognized a growing and demonstrable trend in our society: the fact that modern American philanthropy is a consumer marketplace.

This is a long-standing trend, really. Vanity Fair's special issue is in the long tradition of the Jerry Lewis Telethons, George Harrison's epic Concert for Bangladesh (which made fundraising for developing nations a key charity icon in Baby Boomer sensibility), LiveAid, FarmAid, No Nukes, and the post-September 11th concerts. And not just the big, celebrity-studded events either: the March of Dimes and its ubiquitous countertop jars may have been the original consumer marketplace fundraising campaign, followed by literally thousands of imitators.

Over the last half-century, large philanthropic causes have capitalized on knowledge of consumer behavior, on building strong brands, and using unified messages. But what, in consumer marketing terms, causes consumers to act; specifically to buy (in commercial terms) or to give?

Business Week earlier this year identified a new type of marketing expert: "ethnographers, a species of anthropologist who can, among other things, identify what's missing in people's lives the perfect cell phone, home appliance, or piece of furniture and work with designers and engineers to help dream up products and services to fill those needs."

But can ethnographers help to create the perfect cause? And if nonprofits want to adopt this increasingly important area of social science to mimic their corporate cousins to design campaigns and causes based what anthropologists tell us what are the implications for philanthropy?

Two clear sides become apparent as the ethnography coin spins on the philanthropic tabletop. On one side is the fact that despite the explosion of new nonprofits in recent years, the motivation for creating these charitable products (and I know many of you will cringe at the use of that term, but we're talking consumer marketplace here) is based on either a perceived need or the singular emotional attachment (and money) of a founder. Just as clearly, the flip side says this: either play well in the consumer marketplace or see your public funding wither and fade.

Clearly, if nonprofits are chartered to serve the public good, the pure creation of products to appeal to consumer interest runs counter to our mission. Those of us raising funds for nonprofits do so because those organizations do worthy things, not because we need to increase marketshare (as worthy a goal as that clearly is for corporations). The role of the consumer anthropologist in philanthropy becomes clearer, I think, when you peer inside an organization's ongoing fundraising and communications. Here, within the structure of raising and spending funds for a cause, experimentation has been going on for many decades. Any nonprofit involved in a serious direct marketing program must test new methods of attaining donors, almost by definition. At trade shows and conferences, I've seen plenty of really visionary fundraisers talk about envelopes, streaming video, clever giveaways, and a wide spectrum of rewards marketing. Even in major gifts at the top of the fundraising food chain good practitioners create "product" all the time: in the form of naming opportunities, events, giving circles and the like.

What every good fundraiser and what nonprofit marketer is not a fundraiser, your corporate types included has to realize is that the particular consumer marketplace that philanthropy inhabits is almost entirely aspirational.

When we make the decision to give, it is based on a relatively simple checklist of smaller decisions all of which have to do with how we see ourselves in the world. Brand managers in the consumer world have long understood this. Remember the phrase, "you are what you drive?" You can apply it to what you eat, where you live, what you wear, watch or listen to and how you give.

When we make a gift, it is less transactional certainly than a purchase. The desire to fund change, to help the poor, to better society is real and it goes beyond the purely commercial. But we also aspire as we give.

We aspire to be part of something bigger.
We aspire to have our name related to a good cause.
We aspire to look good in front of our peers.
We aspire to be like Oprah, or Bono, or Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.

Like a modern non-survival related consumer purchase, we make our choices based on how we relate to the charitable "product." Are childhood diseases important? Do we want to improve higher education? Is clean water in Africa a personal issue?

This is why leadership in philanthropy is so vital because we aspire to be like the leaders, to be in their company, whether around the local Lions Club boardroom table, or more virtually by identifying with a celebrity. Consumer experts know this; the rise of charity and philanthropy in our consumer space can clearly be seen in the two most recent covers of Fortune magazine a consumer title for the monied class. There are Warren Buffett and Bill Clinton in back-to-back cover stories on philanthropy. The message is explicit: be like these leaders, like these celebrities.

Someone like Oprah understands the consumer mindset as well as anyone alive in America and when she said this, she nailed it:

"I don't think you ever stop giving. I really don't. I think it's an on-going process. And it's not just about being able to write a check. It's being able to touch somebody's life."