By Jonathan Nemetz
In July 2014, the internet was looking for the new trend of the summer and found it in an unlikely place: the ALS Association. The “ALS Ice Bucket challenge” became an online sensation, averaging 70,000 tweets about the challenge every day throughout August. Over the span of the challenge, politicians, celebrities, and many internet users posted 1.2 million videos on Facebook and raised an estimated $115 million USD for various ALS foundations.The Ice Bucket challenge brought lots of new attention to ALS, but also attention to how generosity may function in an increasingly social-media focused world.
Most recently, the basketball star LeBron James worked in tandem with the public school system in Akron, Ohio to open a new $8 million USD public school called “I Promise”. The school would provide free bikes, meals, and college tuition to its students. In an eleven minute speech at the highly publicized opening ceremony, James stressed the importance of helping at-risk children, and that his LeBron James Family Foundation would continue to search for ways to help areas that needed it most.
In recent years, social media has been used by celebrities to encourage donations, political action, and volunteer activism, all of it in vastly different causes ranging from climate change to sexism to extreme poverty. At the same time that celebrities have been making their donations a public event, companies have noticed the brand success of generosity, and have begun to take notes. Now celebrities and companies alike are joining with charities to promote their brands and their values, creating a new group of donors engaging in so called “Pop Philanthropy”.
Although the donations can be extremely helpful, and done in good faith, psychologists and economists have begun to worry about the effect that the public philanthropy of celebrities has had on the general population. One of the most alarming shifts in donations, to many, has been how celebrities shift donations focuses to sensational organisations and causes. Experts fear that people only give during crises, when giving year-round is the only way to prevent those crises in the first place. For instance, many developing nations receive vast amounts of free aid in response to disasters, but not the year round aid to develop their infrastructure to prevent the devastating effects that those can have.
A similar problem is faced by blood banks, which need blood when a disaster strikes, but more often end up with a massive surplus after the blood is needed. When a hurricane or earthquake occurs, people line up to donate blood to areas in danger, but it is often too late. Blood banks can only hold blood for 42 days, meaning that a month and a half after major disasters, blood banks end up throwing away blood by the gallons. Blood that would have saved lives, had it been donated before a catastrophe.
On average, celebrities tend to use their platforms in the wake of major disasters, creating a trend of reactive, rather than proactive charity. Although this is still admirable, it causes people to be less generous for other causes. When people donate to a charity that a celebrity has recommended, it fills up their “Moral checkbook”, making them less likely to donate in the future. And in the age of social-media, this can manifest in ways that provide no help at all. Some psychologists have shown that reposting the words of a celebrity, or publishing a post showing support for a cause, has the same effect on our brain as donating. This tricks people into thinking that they are doing good, without taking substantial action for that cause. Or, seeing celebrities donate can give the illusion that problems are being fixed, when lots of work is still needed.
The debate on whether or not celebrities have a positive impact on monetary donations may never be over. Of course, activism and donations rise when celebrities use their platforms for good, but the negative effects cannot be ignored. Yet perhaps the more important debate isn’t if someone can, but who and why. Now that companies are adopting the social media philanthropy of celebrities, exploitation of charities for corporate gain is also a new and emerging dilemma that charities face. Charities doing real good have to wonder if companies are manipulating their causes. Earlier this year, Nike donated $25,000 USD to Portlanders for Safe and Healthy Schools, an organization that helps to remove hazardous materials from Portland public schools, as well as modernizing their facilities. The donation came at the same time that the school board was looking into the sponsorship relationship that Nike had with the districts sports teams. Although $25,000 would only make up a very small portion of the organization's budget, it is enough to ask if Nike was trying to bribe the public with goodwill into supporting this sponsorship. And if Nike was using this donation to convince the school board to continue to allow the business relationship between Nike and the district’s athletic teams, should the company refuse such a potentially exploitive donation?
Entire businesses have also begun to sprout up in response to this new demand for public donations. The aptly named Pop Philanthropy, has started to capitalize on this trend, working with their clients to “Provide them with creative tactics that captures the attention of consumers…” as their site claims. Companies like Toms Shoes boast of “one for one” policies, where the purchase of one of their shoes or other products leads to a pair of shoes being given to a child in need. And although this promotion has garnered them lots of financial success, the actual impact has been limited. The company's founder claims that he wanted to allow more people to get an education by giving them shoes. However, the Toms brand is attempting to fix a problem that does not exist; fixing a lack of shoes to get people to school is far less effective than targeting poverty or discrimination. And in truth, the influx of free shoes can oftentimes crash local sectors of the economy that center around clothing. But despite these problems, the appearance of charity and generosity keeps Toms in business. People continue to buy their clothes thinking that making a difference is as simple and painless as buying a part of everyday life. The people who buy Toms are trying to do something good, and trying to feel as if they are doing something good. Unfortunately, doing something for the right reasons does not always correlate with the right outcomes.
While some charities worry about what certain donors are trying to do, others are worrying about who those donors are in the first place. In 2015, an adult film company signed three separate $25,000 checks to foundations focused on researching breast cancer. However, the total $75,000 had first been turned down by several other charities, and when in 2014 it had donated to a testicular cancer foundation, the charity asked for the donor to remain anonymous. The same company also launched a line of branded clothing and other products whose proceeds would go to preventing domestic abuse.
As ridiculous as this is, it underlines an important relationship between publicity, charities, and social media. If donations are just donations, does every dollar count, or is a line drawn at some point between Nike and adult film companies? Ultimately, there isn’t a right or wrong answer for how charities and businesses should interact in an increasingly social media driven world. But as a consumer, ask yourself if buying this product is truly making the difference that you think it will. As a donor, ask yourself what led you to give or be active, was it an expert on the situation and its needs, or your favorite actor? The line between charities, celebrities, and businesses is one that is being redrawn, and one that may be hard to redraw in time.