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A nation of beggars: the dark side of social campaigns

July 19, 2011

Facebook Like check, by Bob Doran, Sean MacEntee

Charity begins at “Like.” Or so it would seem.

My fellow social media fans, do not be deceived by the devil in disguise. He comes with promises of money and cars and beneficent works, all in the name of Charity. But be not tempted, Facebookers. Thou shalt not retweet his unholy appeals, Twitterers.

Thus endeth — and beginneth — the sermon.

As someone who has raised thousands of dollars for nonprofit groups over the years, I have worked hard to understand what makes a good appeal. It means talking about my personal connection to the cause, whether it’s Big Brothers Big Sisters, or the Magic City Mission, or the Alabama Social Media Association.

I dig deep to show why I feel it’s an important cause, and how you can make a significant positive difference in the world.

That’s why I find many modern social campaigns to be utterly appalling. They reward nonprofit organizations based on online popularity contests. The group that receives the most Likes or votes wins money or another prize.

It turns charitable works into game show theatrics.

1. Social campaigns emphasize corporations over nonprofit organizations. I have absolutely no problem with corporations donating to charity, even making a small fuss over it. If RJR Nabisco wants to donate $1 million to lung cancer research and hold a media conference, more power to it.

(Beware companies engaged in greenwashing and pinkwashing, however.)

But the Pepsi Refresh Program epitomizes the opposite. Charities duke it out for online votes and bottle cap points. Who’s the real winner of all this hype and additional sales? Pepsi, of course.

Sure, the company gives up to $1.125 million each month to the winners. But rather than take on the deadly dull challenge of weighing the needs and the worthiness of organizations, Pepsi has supposedly given the power to the people.

It’s a sustained promotion machine for Pepsi. It’s brilliant, and despicable, because the true winner isn’t a children’s advocacy group or a public art program somewhere, but a soda filled with empty calories.

2. Social campaigns turn charity into sport. I value competition. It helps us excel at what we do, as individuals, as groups, as nations. And thousands of charities must compete for scarce donor dollars, volunteers, even attention from the media and the public.

But I have grown to value cooperation even more over the years. What marvelous goals we can achieve with open communication and coordinated effort. The assistance provided by thousands of spontaneous volunteers following the April 27 tornadoes is but one example of how working together can bring aid to those in greatest need.

Pitting nonprofit groups against each other for chump change makes for perverse entertainment. Tallying votes and Likes is a distasteful way to distribute limited aid. We must root for our own group, lest another group swoop in and take what is ours.

Yes, some charities will be winners, and some will end up as losers. Must we be so deliberate in crowning those few champions and brushing aside the defeated?

3. Social campaigns promote the illusion of accomplishment. I Like, therefore I am. Surely no harm comes from clicking on buttons to help a charity win a prize, right?

Consider what must happen for a campaign to be successful: A nonprofit organization must have a sizable fan base in a social media channel, such as Facebook. It must then spend its limited time and even money promote itself for the duration of the social campaign, asking others not only to vote, but to spread the word.

A charity can do all of these steps correctly and still come away with nothing. Less than nothing if you take into account that time and money lost, the good will among supporters squandered, the letdown of not having won the lottery.

It turns otherwise noble nonprofits into hucksters, and the rest of us into a nation of beggars.

Please take a moment to vote! … Like this page to help us win a car! … We are in fourth place but closing fast! …

A casual glance down my Facebook wall contains such shallow appeals. One is an appeal to vote for Birmingham parks in Coca-Cola’s America Is Your Park promotion, the winning park receiving $100,000. Another is the Toyota 100 Cars for Good Facebook campaign to assist a foster child advocacy group based in Birmingham in its quest to win a van. I have pleas emailed to me, DMed to me on Twitter and spammed onto my fan pages.

How many dollars could have been raised in that time period otherwise? How many volunteer hours put in, or goods and supplies secured?

Voting on a website isn’t charity work. Writing a check, donating old clothes, transporting clients, organizing events … that’s how people make an actual difference.

Perhaps the worst example is a company trading on Likes to spur donations: “For every Like our Facebook page receives, we will give $1 to tornado relief, up to $500 total.” Just cut the damn check, and stop trying to buy “fans” in the name of good.

Ironically, that final example shows a tangible financial outcome for voting, unlike the campaigns run as popularity contests. It is the ultimate in cynical philanthropy: If you appreciate us enough, only then will we break out the checkbook.

Plenty of nonprofit organizations use social media to promote fund-raisers, events and their mission. They tell the story daily of who they help and how they help them. They connect the audience to a desired outcome.

But that takes true effort and a dedication to the greater good.

Social campaigns have essentially stolen the show, with promises of big cash prizes to the charity that exploits its fan base most efficiently. Remember: If your charity didn’t win, you didn’t spend enough time clicking, you selfish bastard.

In the end, even successful social campaigns have steep hidden costs. Fans prove to be fickle, no more remembering which charity they Liked last week than their favorite singer from “American Idol.” Most charities will never place first, never see a dime from their tireless badgering, their brands cheapened, their resources spent.

If only each person had instead donated a dollar, or an hour, rather than a click, so many nonprofits would have come out ahead. If only.

The devil Likes this.

What do you think of social campaigns? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. 

Photo: Bob Doran / Sean MacEntee (CC)

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. David Pelfrey permalink
    July 21, 2011 12:46 pm

    “Charity begins at ‘like.'” I can’t tell you how envious I am that you coined that phrase.
    But apart from that, thanks for encapsulating all that is wrong with begging, which is what this phenomenon boils down to. I have a personal test for determining if a cause, organization, charity, or similar endeavor gets my support: if they ask for a donation, then they get no support.
    After all, if they are so damn awesome, why are they panhandling?
    I have given money to, and have done things for, several causes and groups that never even saw my support coming.
    That’s because I learned what they were doing, observed their good work, and then decided to help. My theory is that sustained support for the various good guys in the world will exist only if we are frugal and selective with the time and money we donate. But you said that already, largely speaking.

    • Anonymous permalink
      July 25, 2011 10:37 am

      It seems a shame that you don’t support causes that ask for your money. Letting people know of financial need is not the same as begging.

      • July 25, 2011 1:35 pm

        It depends on how they ask.

    • February 7, 2013 4:44 pm

      David, I used to work for the American Red Cross.

      You would be appalled at the percentage of people who believe it is funded by the government, and by taxes.

      You can’t assume that everyone else is going to be as aware, involved, and thorough as you are in your research.

      You have a noble sentiment, but I know what happens when it is taken to the extreme.

  2. July 21, 2011 2:35 pm

    Great article. I have been involved in a project where we spent considerable time and energy just to get the chance to get a chance to be a part of a social campaign. Unless your fingers were fast enough on the submit button, there wasn’t a chance to even try for the money. All that work and it came down to a submit button. And no, the fingers weren’t fast enough.

  3. July 25, 2011 10:40 am

    It’s the social media, and perhaps more middle-class, version of “come to my lake house to support ‘Short People Against Kicking Puppies’ ” An attempt to self-aggrandize under a veil. After all, if you aren’t excited about this materialistic, self-promoting chance to see and be seen, you must hate puppies.

    Perhaps Matthew 6:1 is worth another look in this context. Right on, Wade.

  4. Brandi permalink
    July 25, 2011 10:50 am

    After my FB feed became annoyingly bogged down with the junk from the companies I “liked” to support a charity for a friend, I kind of got fed up. Now, I have a personal policy only to “like” companies that I like enough to see their status updates regularly– regardless of their charity affiliation. If the charity itself is something I feel strongly about supporting, I opt to make a small donation instead. It’s worth it not to junk up my feed. And I know that, even as small as my donation might be, it’s actually going to the charity and not for “a chance” for the charity to win money.

    • July 25, 2011 1:37 pm

      And this is the exact kind of fatigue nonprofit groups must must work hard to avoid, else they lose all their supporters overnight.

  5. August 25, 2011 7:59 pm

    Sometimes people focus so much on “the dark side” of things that they fail to appreciate the bright side. Take the case of Pepper Place and the appeal to vote for it as “America’s Favorite Farmers Market.” Originally founded in 2000 with the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation, the Pepper Place Saturday Market began its life with the goals of saving family farms and promoting the benefits of fresh, local produce. The quest began with 20 family farmers, many wondering if they would survive. Today, younger generations of those families are happily continuing independent family farming businesses while other young peers are creating local artisan breads and cheeses — items that simply weren’t in good supply around Birmingham or Alabama when the market began. Pepper Place continues to play an important supporting role in that fresh, local, often organic, food supply. And a stream of health-related volunteer organizations start or end their walks, runs and charitable benefits at, you guessed it, the corner of Second Avenue South and 29th Street. If you were there a few weeks ago when UAB held its annual employee health fair at Pepper Place, you would surely have been impressed by the bright side of things. And you probably would be glad to cast a vote for Pepper Place in the contest sponsored by the American Farmland Trust, which is dedicated to preserving farmland and ranches across the country. It’s all part of an unabashed and unapologetic effort to raise awareness for the importance of preserving these lands. And the grand prize is not money or a van, but well, awareness — in the form of a banner to be placed at the venue, 5,000 postcards, and 500 cloth bags bearing the Farmland Trust logo to be given away to market patrons — to raise more awareness. That’s about it. Pepper Place doesn’t have much money for advertising even at non-profit rates, and it’s not making money from the farmers whose farms it’s helping save. Come out this Saturday and talk to some of them and hear their stories first hand. Buy some of their fresh fruits and vegetables, or handmade crafts from local artists. Observe the incredible diversity of the people who come not just for the produce and breads and cheeses but also for the pleasing local music performed by local musicians. (And they bring a diversity of dogs.) Then decide if it’s worthwhile to help spread the good news about the Pepper Place Saturday Market. Remember, if our market wins the contest, odds are that Number 1 ranking will contribute positively to Birmingham’s image as an authentic “foodie culture” center and continue to help attract talented, interesting people to our city just like UAB does. Then the dark side of the city’s troubled past may fade a little further into the past, which seems to be just where it belongs. Being ranked Number 1 in a national celebration of fresh food and healthy living strikes many of us Pepper Place People as a very bright idea, and one worthy of your support — right out there in the sunshine.

    • August 26, 2011 8:28 am

      Thanks, Greg. You’ve illustrated my point about spamming other people in one hype-filled comment.

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  1. Content marketing: Reputation trumps begging « Birmingham Blogging Academy

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