When holiday cheer causes a crisis: Can philanthropy be a bad thing?

By | November 14, 2013

In the next two months, seasonal generosity will reach its annual peak – coat drives, food drives, toy drives.  Our favorite brands, our favorite stores and our favorite companies are making it easy for us to give to others.  And what could be wrong with that?

This won’t be a blog rant about the need for food all year long, and food pantries being bare all summer when children can’t get their school lunches (Although that’s true).

So what’s the point?

Sometimes, well-intentioned ideas can go bad.  Take for example Walmart’s holiday food drive.  For its own employees.   I’m sure someone, somewhere thought to themselves, “Charity begins at home.  Many of our people are struggling in this economy – their spouses may be out of work, they may have sick family members, or other financial difficulties.  Let’s help our own people first.”

Except that this charitable event became a referendum on the plight of hourly, minimum wage workers like those who work at Walmart.  And it isn’t the first time this has happened:

  • Radio Shack partnered with Livestrong for customers to donate to the organization at the point-of-sale. When registers were automatically charging customers for donations and there was backlash, the company made customers feel guilty for not supporting the fight against cancer.
  • Goodwill Industries, which uses its most of its budget and revenue for public assistance, hires disabled workers but due to a labor law loophole, pays them as little as 22 cents per hour.
  • Papa John’s exchanged Facebook likes, comments, and shares for donations to the Salvation Army in a shameful way to obtain social engagement.

Too often those of us in a corporate headquarters – whether in HR, communications or any other department – become tone deaf to what is happening on the front lines.   A good rule of thumb:  if your charitable idea is insulting to the recipients or pulls the proverbial “scab” off a sore subject, re-frame, re-think or reject the idea.

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