The Hidden Costs of Cause Marketing

From pink ribbons to Product Red, cause marketing adroitly serves two masters, earning profits for corporations while raising funds for charities. Yet the short-term benefits of cause marketing—also known as consumption philanthropy—belie its long-term costs. These hidden costs include individualizing solutions to collective problems; replacing virtuous action with mindless buying; and hiding how markets create many social problems in the first place. Consumption philanthropy is therefore unsuited to create real social change.

I do my main charity work once a week—at the grocery store. Like some of you, this week I bought organic yogurt that not only is healthier for my family and the Earth, but also supports nonprofit environmental and educational organizations. I also picked up snack bars that promote peace (no kidding!) and salad dressing that funds various (unnamed) charities across the country. For all of this hard work, I rewarded myself with some Endangered Species Chocolate, which helps “support species, habitat, and humanity,” according to the company’s Web site. Delicious.

All of these purchases are examples of what my colleague Patricia Mooney Nickel of Victoria University and I call consumption philanthropy.1 Also known in the business world as cause-related marketing or cause marketing, consumption philanthropy pairs the support of a charitable cause with the purchase or promotion of a service or product. (See “Flavors of Consumption Philanthropy” on page 53 for a description of the types of cause marketing.)

One example is the Product Red campaign, which California politician Robert Shriver has led and U2 lead singer Bono has promoted since its launch in 2006. By purchasing select Product Redbranded items from companies like Gap Inc., Apple Inc., Dell Inc., and Starbucks Corp., consumers can also support nonprofits like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. The most well-known among the Red products, the Red iPod, costs $199, with $10 of that amount going to the Global Fund. So far, Red and its corporate partners have contributed more than $59 million to charity.

Consumption philanthropy seems like the ideal solution to many of the problems our society faces today. It allows charities to raise much-needed funds and to educate consumers. It helps corporations increase their profits, bolster their reputations, and distinguish their brands. And it lets consumers feel that they are making a difference in the world. On the surface, all seems rosy.

Yet lurking beneath this rosy surface are some disturbing consequences of combining consumption and philanthropy. I do not mean the often-cited risks of cause marketing, which include misalignment between the charity and the corporate sponsor, wasted resources, customer cynicism, or tainted images of charity. Most critiques of consumption philanthropy focus on these pesky problems of execution without questioning its basic underlying assumption—that consumption philanthropy, if done well, would do good for all.

I disagree with this assumption. Consumption philanthropy individualizes solutions to collective social problems, distracting our attention and resources away from the neediest causes, the most effective interventions, and the act of critical questioning itself. It devalues the moral core of philanthropy by making virtuous action easy and thoughtless. And it obscures the links between markets—their firms, products, and services—and the negative impacts they can have on human well-being. For these reasons, consumption philanthropy compromises the potential for charity to better society.

Short-Term Fix

Strategies that combine consumption with philanthropy have skyrocketed in the last two decades. Among corporate sponsors, cause-marketing expenditures went from almost zero in 1983 to an estimated $1.3 billion in 2006, according to IEG Inc., a Chicago-based firm that tracks cause-related activities in the United States. At the same time, consumers increasingly demand that companies practice philanthropy and social responsibility. A 2004 Cone/Roper report found that 86 percent of American respondents were “very or somewhat likely to switch from one brand to another that is about the same in price and quality, if the other brand is associated with a cause.”

As a growing body of research attests, consumption philanthropy does offer short-term benefits. Many corporations that sign on for cause-marketing campaigns enjoy higher sales and wider publicity for their products and services, improve their image with consumers, expand their markets, and boost employee morale. For example, cosmetics giant Avon Products Inc. says that cause marketing on behalf of early breast cancer detection and research has improved its relationships not only with its predominantly female customer base, but also with its predominantly female sales force.2

Meanwhile, charities gain legitimacy in the marketplace because they are seen “as viable partners in commercial ventures and not just as beggars pandering for the corporate dollar,” write Australian marketing professors Michael Jay Polonsky and Greg Wood in their review of cause-related marketing.3 Through cause-marketing campaigns, charities also generate revenues, attract volunteers, raise awareness of their cause, and receive extensive publicity. For instance, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s partnership with Yoplait—Save Lids to Save Lives—has raised millions of dollars for the foundation while also increasing public awareness of breast cancer (and strengthening Yoplait’s brand image).

Consumers also seem to win from participating in cause marketing. They get additional information about a charity or cause, as well as a convenient way to spend their disposable income on charitable causes. For example, consumers who were planning to buy chicken noodle soup or cereal anyway can choose to buy the “pink” Campbell’s chicken noodle soup or “pink” Cheerios to meet their needs, while also providing funds for breast cancer research.

Lone Rangers

Yet the long-term effects of consumption philanthropy are troubling. The first of these effects is that consumption philanthropy—which usually takes place as individual market transactions—distracts its participants from collective solutions to collective problems. This distraction steers people’s attention and collective resources away from the neediest causes, the most effective interventions, and the act of critical questioning itself.

The growth of consumption philanthropy reflects many people’s confidence in the power of the market (that is, the institutions, systems, and places where buyers and sellers exchange things) to deal with all sorts of social problems. That confidence stems from the ideology of neoliberal economics, which prevailed worldwide—at least before the current economic collapse. This ideology “views all aspects of human society as a kind of market,” note management scholars Brenda Zimmerman and Raymond Dart.4 For instance, in his 2005 book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits, University of Michigan management professor C.K. Prahalad portrays the world’s poorest people as an untapped market niche whose salvation will come when they are fully integrated into the market. Likewise, in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush told Americans that our best, most patriotic recourse was to go shopping.

But one problem with relying on consumers to right the world’s wrongs is that most consumers are not very interested in or capable of righting the world’s wrongs. The primary goal of people in marketplaces is to make choices that fulfill their self-interested, individual material needs and desires. In this capacity, they generally have little impetus to consider “the public” or “the public good.” Caught up in the transactions of buying and selling, they have little opportunity to question the fundamental principles of corporate organization. And unlike citizens who share in the collective authority, responsibility, and dignity of public life, individual consumers have little reason to wonder how larger political-economic structures might create social problems in the first place.

Recent research indeed shows that when money enters the picture, people’s more charitable impulses often fall by the wayside. University of Toronto management professor Sanford DeVoe and his colleagues, for example, have shown in laboratory experiments that participants are less likely to volunteer for a charity after calculating how much money they earn per hour than they are after merely reporting their annual salary. Putting a price tag on time, it seems, makes people less willing to give their time away “for free.” 5 (For more information, see “The Stingy Hour” in the winter 2008 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.)

The research evidence also shows that individualized consumer approaches to philanthropy actually shift giving away from more collective approaches. Professors Karen Flaherty, currently at Oklahoma State University, and William Diamond of the University of Massachusetts Amherst found in a 1999 study that cause-marketing campaigns hinder future donations to charities because consumers think that their purchases are donations.6 So when the plate passes for charitable contributions, respondents to cause-marketing campaigns feel that they’ve already given. Likewise, findings published in 2004 in the Journal of Marketing suggest that consumers who support socially responsible companies believe that they have already done their philanthropic share.7

Consistent with these findings, Zimmerman and Dart tell the story of a person who attended a book sale held by a nonprofit organization. The person bought a hot dog, a drink, and a couple of books at the event. When the nonprofit asked for donations, the attendee demurred, thinking that the purchases were a sufficient contribution to the organization.

Another less favorable implication of consumption philanthropy’s reliance on the purchasing decisions of individual consumers is that it may disadvantage less attractive but nonetheless worthy causes. Consider the many pink ribbon campaigns for breast cancer, for instance. Since 1991, when the first pink ribbon was handed out at the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s Race for the Cure, pink ribbons and products have flourished. Today, the Komen Foundation raises about $30 million a year through 130 corporate partnerships.

The sheer volume of pink products seems to lead many consumers to believe that breast cancer is the most pressing health problem facing women today. Yet the most recent (2004) data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the leading cause of death among women in the United States is heart disease, not breast cancer. And although cancer is the leading cause of death for women ages 35-64, breast cancer is not the most common form of cancer among women (skin cancer is), nor is it the leading cause of death among women diagnosed with cancer (lung cancer holds this distinction). Because of the success of cause marketing for breast cancer, however, breast cancer-related organizations receive attention that is disproportionate to the scope of the disease.

As consumption philanthropy becomes ubiquitous, some observers worry that it may, in the long run, have exactly the opposite of its intended effect and will desensitize the public to social ills while decreasing other forms of philanthropic action. Accordingly, Matthew Berglind of Northwestern University and Cheryl Nakata of the University of Illinois at Chicago write in a 2005 Business Horizons article: “It is not difficult to imagine cause-related marketing campaigns interjecting themselves into the millions of purchase transactions that take place each day. In response, people may simply tune out and say ‘no’ because they cannot process each and every request, or because they believe they have already donated enough.” 8

Easy Virtue

One of the redeeming aspects of consumption philanthropy is that it makes philanthropy simple and convenient. As I do every weekend at the grocery store, shoppers can protect the Earth, promote world peace, and fund a network of otherwise unnamed charities without deviating from their routines in the least. In this way, consumption philanthropy can contribute to a more compassionate marketplace.

The other side of this easy virtue, however, is that it is too easy. Consumption philanthropy does not allow people to exercise their moral core. Philanthropy originated in the Greek ideal of philanthropos or “love of humankind.” According to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, philanthropy allows people to enact the all-important virtues of generosity, benevolence, kindness, compassion, justice, and reciprocity. Enacting these virtues, in turn, allows people to develop their character, cultivate their human potential, and strengthen their moral fiber.

Can consumption philanthropy achieve these same ends? Probably not. When people link their charitable donations to their preexisting consumption decisions, they need not exercise a deeper sense of moral responsibility. They need not take any extra steps (beyond, say, choosing a different brand of yogurt) or make any additional sacrifices. Instead, they need only to pursue their shopping needs and wants. Indeed, the consumer-philanthropist may even enjoy a cost savings for her seemingly virtuous effort. As a recent Project Red advertisement put it: “30 percent off for you, 5 percent to fight AIDS in Africa.” One could argue that consumption philanthropy— especially if there is a charitable surcharge—represents effort, and the choice to buy a “socially responsible” product represents intention, but there is very little sacrifice, if any, required. And so consumption philanthropy becomes divorced from the experience of duty.

Perhaps a more disturbing feature of consumption philanthropy is that consumers need not be aware of the supposed beneficiary of their actions. The morality of philanthropy comes from acting for other people, according to scholars Warren Smith and Matthew Higgins.9 Acting for other people, in turn, requires figuring out what they really need.

Yet consumption philanthropy sidesteps both this requirement and, more generally, contact with people in need. For example, a person who uses a charity-licensed credit card to pay for an expensive meal, and thereby sends a percentage of his purchase to a cause that fights hunger, may no longer feel obligated to find out who is hungry or why they are hungry. Without this knowledge, he may feel less empathy for poor people, and therefore less compelled to change the conditions that caused their plight.

More broadly, in the absence of people’s active and effortful moral engagement, corporations and their profit-driven needs set the tone for acceptable ways of being philanthropic. As a result, people’s genuine benevolent sentiments are co-opted for profit, and their care is reduced to a market transaction.

Market Blindness

A third long-term negative consequence of consumption philanthropy is that it obscures the ways that markets produce some of the very problems—physical, social, and environmental—that philanthropy attempts to redress. In Pink Ribbons, Inc., Samantha King describes the paradox of some pink ribbon products: labels on the outside that promote breast cancer awareness and research, but chemicals on the inside that cause the disease in the first place. (See the spring 2007 Stanford Social Innovation Review for a review of this book.) So consumers buy, say, a $6 SpongeBob Pink Pants toy to help fight cancer, not realizing that this product—a frivolous item—also likely creates the toxins and other environmental hazards that help cause cancer.

Consumption philanthropy seldom calls on consumers to question the labor that went into the creation of these products. Do these allegedly responsible corporations pay their workers a living wage? Do they create safe working conditions? Do they make fair contracts? Product Red may be donating money to fight disease in Africa, but it isn’t doing enough to protect the workers who make its products, says Bristol, U.K.-based nonprofit Labour Behind the Label. Although Product Red partner Gap has worked diligently over the years to improve its ethical practices and image, for instance, the apparel company still runs afoul of both international regulations and activists: Two years ago, London’s Observer found children making Gap clothing in sweatshops in India. Cause-marketing items may be no worse than ordinary products, but they appear to be no better, either.

Finally, consumption philanthropy rarely questions the act of consuming or the environmental havoc that more and more products wreak. Did the energy used to create that Endangered Species Chocolate bar destroy another acre of rain forest, and therefore hasten the endangerment of yet another species and the warming of the planet? Was that SpongeBob Pink Pants toy really worth the petroleum—and the environmental degradation that came with extracting, refining, and transforming it—that went into it? Rather than raising these questions about our purchases and their consequences, consumption philanthropy encourages people to buy more by making them feel better about it.

In short, consumption philanthropy lulls people into a false sense of doing good through their purchases, even as they are potentially doing harm through their purchases. Indeed, in many cases, consumption philanthropists are exacerbating the very harms they wish to reduce. At the same time, consumption philanthropy feeds the systems and institutions that contribute to many social problems in the first place.

Meanwhile, because consumption and philanthropy have become one and the same, the distance from which one would critique consumption and the market, and imagine alternatives, is eliminated. Philanthropy becomes depoliticized, stripped of its critical, social change potential. The result is that consumption philanthropy stabilizes, more than changes, the system (the market) that some would argue led to the poverty, disease, and environmental destruction philanthropists hope to eradicate. Consumption philanthropy is thus not about change, but about business as usual.

Profit-Free Philanthropy

I cannot offer the solution to the problems of consumption philanthropy. But I hope at least to offer a starting point for dialogue about unexamined assumptions and the political nature of philanthropy. What are our assumptions and expectations of philanthropy? Should philanthropy create social change? If so, what type of change?

If we are concerned about solving societal problems, reinvigorating the moral core of philanthropy, and making markets protect—or at least not harm—human well-being, a market approach cannot be an appropriate avenue for philanthropy. The most benevolent philanthropic agenda would not be infused with consumption. Instead, it would give voice to those who suffer. This may be the best way to create social change.

Why amplify the voices of those who suffer? As we have seen in movements for workers’ rights, African-Americans’ civil rights, and women’s and gender rights in the United States, when the aggrieved speak and the more powerful listen, policies, political processes, and public perceptions can change. Social movements are one of the principal ways in which “collectivities can give voice to their grievances and concerns about the rights, welfare, and well-being of themselves and others.” 10 And social movements—such as the American Revolution and the abolition of slavery—have brought about some of the most significant developments and changes in human history.

For philanthropy to give voice to those who suffer, it needs to support grassroots social movements. Since at least the 1950s, a small but persistent group of foundations and donors has practiced social change philanthropy through its unfettered support of nonprofit groups and grassroots associations. These nonprofit organizations and grassroots associations, in turn, support the movements that give voice to the marginalized. This is in line with Tracy Gary’s challenge to donors, in Inspired Philanthropy, to practice a philanthropy that “has a role in changing the inequities of society” by joining donor interests and experiences with needs in the community. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy likewise calls on foundations to dedicate at least 25 percent of their grant dollars to advocacy, organizing, and civic engagement that promotes equity, opportunity, and justice.

Boston-based Haymarket People’s Fund is committed to this vision of philanthropy. Founded in 1974, the fund supports groups that are working in the areas of racism, workers’ rights, women’s and gender rights, housing and homelessness, and environment and health issues. Its mission is explicitly to “strengthen the movement for social justice” by supporting “grassroots organizations that address the root causes of injustice,” and its democratic funding practices transform the typically hierarchical relations between donors and recipients.

Other nonprofit organizations and philanthropic institutions could focus on cultivating more meaningful and diverse relationships with donors, rather than on raising funds through consumption. Through a more regular and deeper relationship with donors, these organizations and institutions can encourage philanthropists to pay attention to how their philanthropy fits into the larger movement to serve the public good. This will allow them to revive the moral core of their philanthropic acts, as well as to engage in political discourse about what role philanthropy should play in society.

To this end, fundraising experts Kay Sprinkel Grace and Alan Wendroff suggest that fundraisers move away from a transactional model of giving, whose emphasis is on cultivating donors of major gifts, and toward a transformational model of giving, whose “focus is on the impact of the gift and the renewing relationship, not just on the transaction.” 11

Changing philanthropy to give greater voice to those who suffer also means changing the current focus in corporate philanthropy. Rather than tying charity to profits, corporations should focus on their own responsibility to their employees (through means such as fair wages and healthy, satisfying work conditions), the environment (through means such as greener and more sustainable practices), and the global society (through means such as Fair Trade practices and loyalty to communities of operation). Corporations might also join other foundations and donors in funding grassroots efforts to improve communities. These alliances would be strategic partnerships not for profits, but for change from the bottom up.

Though many corporations will find it difficult to be socially responsible on all these dimensions, a few are already doing well on most of them. Two examples are Google Inc. and Whole Foods Market Inc. Google is well-known for its supportive and holistic labor practices: The company pays its employees well, gives them time to explore new projects and creative endeavors, and offers them amenities ranging from on-site roller hockey rinks to free food 24 hours a day. Google also values diversity. Likewise, the Google Foundation supports antipoverty, alternative energy, and environmental efforts. Whole Foods is the largest corporation to purchase renewable energy credits and promotes the use of nonpolluting electricity sources. Several of its stores are 100 percent green-powered.

True Benevolence

Consuming more will not solve today’s social and environmental problems. Indeed, consumption may very well create more of the kinds of problems that we had hoped philanthropy would fix. Relying on individual consumer choices, consumption philanthropy is unsuited to the scale or complexity of the problems it seeks to fix. Couched in market transactions, it neither acknowledges the voice of the transactions’ beneficiaries nor gives philanthropists the satisfaction of mindful virtuous action. And caught in the mechanisms of the market, it obscures the fact that the market caused many of the problems that philanthropy seeks to redress.

For philanthropy to lead to social change—if that is indeed what we hope and expect it to do—I suggest we look to philanthropy as a tool to bring greater voice to those who have suffered or are marginalized, and for those who advocate for bettering society. This is not easy in today’s society, although our current economic crisis is increasingly demonstrating the limitations of the market.

The time has come to question our assumptions and then to imagine alternative, more hopeful futures. Surely, genuinely philanthropic benevolence would call not for more consumption, but for the elimination of the conditions that make philanthropy necessary.


1 This work is based on an article by Patricia M. Nickel and Angela M. Eikenberry, “A Critique of the Discourse of Marketized Philanthropy,” American Behavioral Scientist, 52(7), 2009: 974-89.

2 John Davidson, “Cancer Sells,” Working Woman, 22(5), 1997: 36-39.

3 Michael Jay Polonsky and Greg Wood, “Can the Overcommercialization of Cause- Related Marketing Harm Society?” Journal of Macromarketing, 21(1), 2001: 12.

4 Brenda Zimmerman and Raymond Dart, “Charities Doing Commercial Ventures,” Trillium Foundation, 1998.

5 Sanford E. DeVoe and Jeffrey Pfeffer, “Hourly Payment and Volunteering: The Effect of Organizational Practices on Decisions About Time Use,” Academy of Management Journal, 50(4), 2007: 783-98.

6 Karen Flaherty and William Diamond, “The Impact of Consumers’ Mental Budgeting on the Effectiveness of Cause-Related Marketing,” American Marketing Association Conference Proceedings, 10, 1999: 151-52.

7 Donald R. Lichtenstein, Minette E. Drumwright, and Bridgette M. Braig, “The Effect of Corporate Social Responsibility on Customer Donations to Corporate-Supported Nonprofits,” Journal of Marketing, 68(4), 2004: 16-32.

8 Matthew Berglind and Cheryl Nakata, “Cause-Related Marketing: More Buck Than Bang?” Business Horizons, 48(5), 2005: 443-53.

9 Warren Smith and Matthew Higgins, “Cause-Related Marketing: Ethics and Ecstatic,” Business & Society, 39(3), 2000: 304-22.

10 David A. Snow, Sarah A. Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi, “Mapping the Terrain,” in The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell Publishing, 2004: 3-16.

11 Kay Sprinkel Grace and Alan Wendroff , High-Impact Philanthropy: How Donors, Boards, and Nonprofit Organizations Can Transform Communities, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001: 15.

Angela M. Eikenberry is an assistant professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she studies and teaches philanthropy, nonprofit management, and public administration theory. Her book, Giving Circles: Philanthropy, Voluntary Association, and Democracy, will be published in summer 2009.

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  • BY elaine cohen

    ON May 21, 2009 03:40 PM

    Dear Angela, Thank you for your insightful article. You raise many interesting observations. However, I would like to present an alternative view, as i believe the phrase consumption philanthropy is an oxymoron - these are two completely distinct and separate concepts, with distinct and separate purposes. Cause marketing creates brand competitive advantage. Corporate philanthropy seeks to support communities, without the brand hype.  Cause marketing, in most cases, does not require customers to pay more, but simply to favour brands which have a positive social/environmental benefit cf Ben and Jerry’s, Patagonia, Body Shop, or as you point out, purchase a product where the corporation promises to make a donation to a charitable cause (funded from the marketing budget) .  Cause marketing creates a competitive edge, but it is not the consumer who is practising philanthropy in this case. Even if the consumer gets a buzz from the knowledge that the brand owner, the Corporation, makes a philanthropic contribution, still, the “philanthropy” is the company’s decision and the consumer is not a party to that. Rather, the consumer is looking to make a positive impact - create change - the consumer buys into the cause and not the charity. (I suspect that a cause marketing campaign which said simply “we will donate to charity"without specifiying the charitable cause would fail). It would be going to far to suggest that financing social change can all be bundled under the name of philanthropy. Indeed, cause marketing is more of a business investment rather than a philanthropic act. Corporate philanthropy is a different approch altogether and here i believe that tools such as SROI or other benchmarks could be used to evaluate the social/environmental effect of cash donations. I agree that philanthropy should become more transformational - and by and large, i see the large philanthropic funds using their weight to develop advocacy and capacity building.  I see cause marketing as a creative way of leveraging brand power for positve social/environmental benefit. Now, the question of whether the cause marketeer is simply using the cause as a cover for irresponsible behaviour in other areas is a good one, but here i feel we ought to give consumers a little more credit - irreputable brands will not win at cause marketing - the success of cause marketing rests on strong trust in the brand. The question of contradictory impacts is one which thwarts all corporate CR activity - can you proctect the environment whilst mistreating your employees ? does organic cotton actually use more water resources than the chemicals used in synthetics ? does reducing consumption create vast issues for unemployment in developing countries etc . We all need to get better at assessing 360 degree impacts and creating more business transparency.  But i see this as separate from the issue of cause marketing and philanthropy, it is an inherent challenge for all companies practising CSR programs.
    Finally, in these days of economic crisis, cause marketing is a way of creating brand differentiation which is essential to prevent all community funding from being pushed to the bottom of the priority list. P&G;recently announced that they would be doing lots more cause marketing for this very reason. As with any CR activity, there needs an alert and discerning public, and a focus on contributing to generating systemic change. Both cause marketing and philanthropy, separately,  have their individual roles to play, i feel.
    thank you, elaine cohen

  • Thank you Angela for this insightful article.  In the Philippines, corporations, some of them multinational, engage in cause marketing that shy away from the larger overall view of social change.  A local clothing company will present a new shirt with a logo that suggests one is doing good and then gets celebrities to model the shirt.  Where the shirt is produced (China) or the celebrities chosen (known for conspicuous consumption) to wear the shirts are not discussed.  Cause marketing here is rough in the edges.  The same clothing company would take out huge billboards to present their “I’m committed” shirts, the same billboards, that during typhoon season fall and kill people.

    Having worked for the North Star Fund, a sister foundation of the Haymarket Fund that you cited, I also appreciate the difference you point out between the societal change efforts practiced by these community foundations and corporate cause marketing efforts which fall short of getting to the root of the problem.

    John L. Silva

  • BY Ben Davis

    ON May 23, 2009 12:15 PM

    Fantastic work, Angela. Thank you for the substantive exploration and superb articulation of the potential perils of the rapidly growing cause-marketing industry. Your fine work provides underlying support for the general discomfort we felt when we launched in 2007. That site’s tagline is “Shopping in not a solution. Buy less. Give more.” It tapped a nerve, spreading from friend to friend and receiving hundreds of thousands of hits. 

    Relevant to your work, or next trick is the launch of (<) , pronounced less, which is the world’s first open-source brand. When you put the (<) mark on something you already own, you commit to three principles: 1. Exploring the beauty of less in your own life; 2. Doing more for others; and 3. No money changing hands around the use of the (<) mark. We aspire to have (<) become an internationally recognizable symbol, like a peace sign, but for a new generation grappling with sustainability.

    Keep up the important work. And join (<)!

  • BY Angela Eikenberry

    ON May 27, 2009 12:21 PM

    Elaine, John, and Ben,

    Thanks for your comments. I appreciate having a chance to dialogue on this subject.

    Elaine—I think you raise many good points that deserve more empirical investigation. I don’t think we know with a great deal of certainty what calculus goes on in people’s heads when they buy a product that purports to support charity or a cause in various ways. As my article mentions, there is some evidence to suggest that people do think of it is as kind of charitable act and that it may crowd out other charitable behaviors. Just because we may think of cause marketing as something other than philanthropy, this doesn’t change the potential for consumers to think of it and behave as if it is philanthropy. We need more research on this! I think I disagree with you that “the ‘philanthropy’ is the company’s decision and the consumer is not a party to that.” This is another empirical question but my impression is that the consumer is party to it—the consumer and corporation are in relationship of sorts in that the consumer may decide to go with a product because the corporation promises to support a charity or cause. I do agree with you that cause marketing appears to be a business investment for the corporation; I’m not sure that it is for the consumer.

    John—I think you highlight one of the most important points of this discussion for me: that philanthropy, corporate philanthropy, cause marketing, etc. should not be seen as something separate from the larger social, political, economic environment. When they are seen as separate, it’s easy to ignore the issues you raise about what goes on behind the t-shirt.

    Ben—Thanks for sharing the link to and info on (<)—ingenious parodies of (Red)!. Where can people join (<)?

  • Joan Roelofs's avatar

    BY Joan Roelofs

    ON May 28, 2009 09:00 AM

    Dear Angela,
    I agree with most of what you are saying.  I remember my annoyance when I was pressured at work to buy daffodils to prevent cancer, and couldn’t get the seller to tell me where and how they were produced.  I didn’t buy any, and this is another problem—pressure to go along with these schemes.
    I do have a quibble about the American Revolution.  Whose suffering caused it?  The British were on the road to abolishing slavery in the colonies, and prohibited settlement West of the Appalachians because it was Indian territory (according to treaties that the wicked monarchists but not the saintly democrats respected).  Thus the slave owners, land speculators, and New England commercial interests exporting slave products wanted independence, and “liberty” to do their thing.
    Haymarket Peoples Fund has certainly helped many groups.  Has it promoted social change?  Has it created movements or helped to fragment protest? I did a very small preliminary study asking these questions.  Is anybody doing critical research on these matters?
    What has caused social change in the past and what is likely to work in the future?
    There still needs to be an institute for the critical study of philanthropy.  Maybe a state university in Progressive territory would establish one. We had to cancel the anthology on critical philanthropy research because of too few relevant submissions and new studies.


  • I would say the underlying cause not addressed by consumptive philanthropy is the inadequate measurement of social / env. well-being in “profit”.  If we incorporated soc. / env. well-being into the price of transactions then any profit would truly be profit, and then we probably wouldn’t need as much philanthropy.

    My idea is to create a social web-enterprise called Sereket that is a Social and Environmental REsponsibility marKET.  Using this tool consumers could calculate the true cost of an item, not just the individualized cost-benefit.  If you want to work on this solution please email me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and I can send you the slide deck explaining the concept.  Also see for a non-profit version, which are finalists in the Echoing Green competition.

    (Angela, Thank you for writing this interesting piece and I hope you don’t mind me plugging a social venture on your comment board.)


    PS - On a tangent, I work in donor acquisition for a non-profit and we use physical goods in promotions frequently.  This is equally based on consumptive philanthropy.  Interestingly, it is those who donate the least who want goods in return - once you go higher up the giving pyramid the desire for something in return really falls off.

  • Angela Eikenberry's avatar

    BY Angela Eikenberry

    ON June 5, 2009 09:29 AM

    Joan, thanks a lot for your comments. You raise some very good points. There’s always more below the surface to uncover. I hope my writing here is seen as just a step or moment in the process of continuing the dialogue on this and other topics related to philanthropy and social change. Do you think there are any really good examples of philanthropy helping to bring about social change (in a more radical sense)? I agree too that we need more critical work on philanthropy and appreciate what you’ve already done in this regard. I would love to talk more about this with you sometime.

    Evan, this idea sounds very interesting. If folks knew the true (or at last truer) costs of their consumption, they might make different decisions and consume less or more ethically, which seems like a good thing.


  • BY Joe Waters

    ON June 5, 2009 03:39 PM

    Hi Angie,

    Thanks so much for your time on Twitter today for the spirted conversation—albeit at 140 charachters, which, as you know, can be a bit frustrating at times!

    In responding to your article I wanted to look at your main complaint about cause marketing which you nicely summarize in the beginning:

    “Consumption philanthropy individualizes solutions to collective social problems, distracting our attention and resources away from the neediest causes, the most effective interventions, and the act of critical questioning itself. It devalues the moral core of philanthropy by making virtuous action easy and thoughtless. And it obscures the links between markets—their firms, products, and services—and the negative impacts they can have on human well-being. For these reasons, consumption philanthropy compromises the potential for charity to better society.”

    Let me address these one at a time.

    First, the fact that some causes will get more attention that others is a reality that simply is not going away, even if we take cause marketing out of the equation. While it’s too late to do that now, let’s look at charities before BEFORE the arrival of cause marketing. Did they exist in some sort of philanthropic Eden where they were given equal time and equal resources? If so, why did charities like The Muscular Dystrophy Association raise more money and get more visibility than others. Because of Jerry Lewis no doubt. But muscular dystrophy doesn’t effect a large swarth of the population so weren’t Jerry’s Kids hurting the more needy causes? In short, cause marketing didn’t create a charity of rivals, it reflects it.

    Second, do you think every charitable gift should be hard and thoughtful? If that’s the case, most are. A nonprofit generally raises only 5 to 15% from corporate giving, and this INCLUDES cause marketing. So even if cause marketing is thoughtless and easy, and that’s making a big assumption for all those people who carry their cause items to the register, it really doesn’t represent that much. Even Komen that raises so much from cause marketing raises ten-fold that amount from other sources.

    Finally, you make the point about cause marketing obscuring the link between markets and consumers. Many of the items made for causes are not frivilous but items we use everyday. Like you, I have an iPod. I bought mine in red to benefit Product RED. I like soup. I buy the brand with the pink ribbon. I needed a new vacuum cleaner. What the hell, no one will see me: I’ll buy a pink from from Oreck and support Komen. The point is that there is a lot less waste than you think.

    Also, cause marketing just isn’t percentage of sale, it’s also point of sales, which involves paper icons, and licensing. Now, paper icons are wasteful, but folks like St. Jude are leading the charge at doing these at the register using the customer-controlled credit card machines. And, well, licensing is a great area of cost- and consumption- effective growth for nonprofits.

    The good news is that cause marketing is relatively new for many NPO’s and is only starting to trickly down to smaller charities. And it will.

    This is what you need to do: take a breath. We need to do other things to raise awareness of the needs of the neediest charities. Eliminating cause marketing isn’t one of them. There is room for the easy gift out there—for the buck or two at the register. There is plenty of other thoughtful giving that happens outside of cause marketing. And don’t be sure cause marketing isn’t one of them. Finally, the wasteful side of cause marketing is smaller than you think and society pressures are pushing it toward less not more.

    There is nothing hidden about cause marketing. Unlike the majority of major gifts made to large institutions in this country, they’re not negotiated in board rooms on mahogany tables. Or on the top floor of some skyscraper over a t-bone steak. These deals are done at the registers of stores across America by everyday people like you and me in full view of one’s peers. How can something open, public and optional be called hidden?


  • BY Angela Eikenberry

    ON June 9, 2009 11:47 AM


    Thanks a lot for your comments. I want to direct others to your blog post on this subject and my response: Let’s keep the discussion going.


  • Jeff Atlas's avatar

    BY Jeff Atlas

    ON June 10, 2009 02:32 PM


    I believe that most of your piece is, in a word, drivel.

    I was part of the team that developed “cause-related marketing” for American Express. I worked at Ogilvy & Mather at the time and created the advertising that supported the launch of this effort. By the way, as you bandy about the phrase, “cause-related marketing,” you might be interested to know that this phrase is actually trademarked by American Express -  a trademark that they have never enforced. Virtually no one is aware that Amex holds this trademark and they have, in effect, given it to people to assist in explaining this marketing program. So much for corporations never acting in a benevolent way.

    Your argument is so full of fallacies that I don’t know where to begin. At almost every step of the way, you have drawn the incorrect assumption based on anecdotal and/or flawed research or simply on faulty logic. So, let me start to refute your arguments at a random point:

    “The sheer volume of pink products seems to lead many consumers to believe that breast cancer is the most pressing health problem facing women today.”

    This argument is based on your belief that cause-marketing may draw attention away from the most serious health concerns. By this flawed logic, someone (who this would be is unclear to me) should create a list of the world’s most pressing concerns. Then, all of the resources of philanthropy and giving should address this one problem until it has been eradicated. At this point, all funds would then be directed to the next item on the list, and so on. You seem to suggest that any awareness given to anything other than the most serious cause would distract from that one cause.

    On the contrary, cause-marketing can be used to bring attention to a problem that people did not know even existed. For instance, Tide Detergent created its “Loads of Love” campaign. A purchase of Tide would help fund their program of bringing mobile washing machines to help after a major disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina. Had it ever occurred to you that getting clean clothes was a major problem for people who had just survived a disaster? It hadn’t to me and I suspect most other people. Tide was able to bring attention to a little known problem and help solve that problem at the same time.

    Did this distract people from their concerns about AIDS in Africa? There is no reason why it should. These are two separate and distinct problems that can be solved by two separate and distinct methods. They are not equivalent to most people. Nor, as you would seem to suggest, are they mutually exclusive.

    Another point of yours: “A 1999 study that cause-marketing campaigns hinder future donations to charities because consumers think that their purchases are donations.”

    Where is the flip side of this position? How many people have become aware of a problem through cause-marketing and contributed either time or money to solve that problem, when they would never have done so before? While some may give less to a particular cause than before - and I doubt that research - how much more has been given by people who would never have thought to contribute to that cause at all? In other words, there might be someone who makes a regular contribution to breast cancer research (Oops, I forgot that is not the most serious health risk to women.) and would donate less because they believe that they have given through the purchase of a product. But how many more would never have donated to breast cancer research at all? Let’s look at the US postage stamp that benefits the Susan Komen Fund. Of the millions of people who have chosen to buy that stamp, how many would have made a contribution to breast cancer research by other means? I suspect that, statistically, very few. So, while there might be some decline in giving by some people, it is far outweighed by the incremental giving that is created.

    Next: “Participants are less likely to volunteer for a charity after calculating how much money they earn per hour than they are after merely reporting their annual salary. Putting a price tag on time, it seems, makes people less willing to give their time away for free.”

    Since I donate my time to help - yes, I volunteer - let me respond to this absurdity. I have never calculated the actual number of hours that I have donated to them. Neither have I ever thought about my regular yearly salary on a “per hour” basis. Thus, I have never thought to monetize my volunteer time. Why should I, unless compelled by a research study? Certainly, the government does not approach volunteering this way. By the logic of this study, people would calculate their per hour salary and then multiply that by the number of hours that are volunteered. They could then, theoretically, deduct that amount of time from their taxes as a “charitable deduction.” But neither people nor the government think this way. People in this research study have been put into a situation that is not real and then been asked to respond to it. In fact, do parents calculate the time that they spend with their children in this way? Does a father who skips a business meeting to attend his son’s Little League game then send his son the bill for his time? Nor does a parent ever say to their children, “You know, you have cost me $126,567.13 in lost salary to attend your school events.” Most people do not monetize the amount of time that they give to a cause that they love and care about. In fact, a Stanford study showed that the time that people spent volunteering was the time that they were most proud of. People count the emotional gratification they get from volunteering far more than they count the cost in terms of paid man-hours.

    At any rate, I shall spend no more time on this now. I do, however, challenge you at any time and anywhere to debate this topic.

    Jeff Atlas

  • BY Finola Prescott

    ON June 11, 2009 07:21 AM

    Interesting concept but I hoped for more specifics on the core of your statement and discussion perhaps on other consumption based trends in social responsibility like fair trade (under much discussion in these parts as to whether it’s fair or not!) slow fashion, buy handmade and such that are emerging, and on the success or challenges companies that adopt socially responsible practices face as well. There was space within the length of the article I think for this, and they relate to your core issue -what is really going to work - or can - in consumer-corporate philanthropy and responsibility?

    As an artist and creative product developer who often works with community groups here, the question of whether to brand products with info about how they help a community group often comes up and I have often considered whether to include donations to charity from my own sales. I falter each time in making the decision as I am not sure of the ethics of this, but to be honest, if it helps me survive in my business and allows me as an individual to give to charity where otherwise I probably won’t, then surely that’s a good thing? And if it draws the buyer’s attention to a charity, that’s good too. Perhaps the issue is that information about ways to follow on this act of philanthropy with other life habit changes are missing in the promotions. I like the idea of the buylesscrap site for instance.

    I do believe there’s much much more to righting the systems that perpetuate poverty and true independence of many peoples and nations, but I tend to believe, and this is more of my instinct than data based conclusion, that cause marketing can probably be improved, perhaps grown into other areas of corporate responsibility that improve the equation. I’d like to believe that the focus brought on these companies and their products and the resulting consumer awareness could be built upon to persuade them along more socially responsible paths.

    Glad you wrote this article, brought some good discussion and information together.

  • Angela Eikenberry's avatar

    BY Angela Eikenberry

    ON June 11, 2009 12:18 PM

    Hi Jeff and Finola,

    Jeff, I’m going to try to respond to the points your raise over at Joe’s blog:

    Finola, it would have been great to get into more specifics on these topics—SSIR editors please take note we need more articles on these topics! I think I did use all the space SSIR allotted for this article. They really did a great job forcing me to be articulate, or at least try to be articulate.

    As you and others have pointed out, it’s probably unrealistic to think that cause marketing would or should go away completely. In your case, it’s important for your business. For some nonprofits, it’s an important part of their total fundraising efforts. I think the key is 1) be more conscious of the potential costs and benefits and how it fits with other things you do; and 2 try to figure out if it could be done better and consider/take into account some of the issue I raise in the article. It seems to me there are a lot of assumptions about the value of cause marketing that need researched and supported (or not) by empirical data.


  • BY Edward Izzys

    ON June 12, 2009 12:10 PM


    I feel like there is a scarcity of good marketing today. Good marketing means which can convert the leads into sales. The only marketing that has moved me in the last couple of years is Search Engine Optimization.

  • BY Mike Everett-Lane

    ON June 13, 2009 03:31 PM

    Such an interesting article, and thank you for raising these questions about cause consumption. In particular, the potential for “marketed philanthropy” to distract us from examining corporations’ practices, labor, environmental impact, etc. (Don’t forget their investment strategies as well.) The fact that there are at least two bottled water brands (Ethos and Coke’s Aquarius Spring) trying to address water issues is astounding, given the negative impact of bottled water on our environment. As another example, there are a lot of labor activists who would wholly disagree with your use of Whole Foods as a corporate exemplar.

    One point that is consistently left out of the debate on cause marketing is that nearly every purchase we make has some philanthropy “embedded” in it, whether or not it’s touted on the label. Some of the purchase price will end up in the company’s profits, and some of those profits will end up in corporate philanthropy. But it would be impossible for citizen-consumers to compare the philanthropic portfolio behind every purchase. Cause marketing can act as a kind of shorthand for the kinds of causes the company supports.

    I do, however, have a few questions about your assumptions underlying the analysis.

    “Consumption philanthropy individualizes solutions to collective social problems.” I would argue that the opposite is true. A individualized, atomized approach to philanthropy will result in many small donations made to many different non-profit organizations. Corporate philanthropy bundles many small donations (e.g., the $10 RED iPod premium) into larger grants that can be more effective at addressing societal problems.

    “Consumption philanthropy does not allow people to exercise their moral core.” By this argument, we should eliminate the tax deduction for charitable gifts, because it detracts from the moral value of philanthropy by making it “easier.” And not every moral tradition would agree with you and Aristotle about the centrality of intent and character to the act of giving. Maimonides, for example, wrote that the penultimate level of charity was that person who “gives to the poor, but does not know to whom he gives, nor does the recipient know his benefactor”—exactly the opposite of your desire to put benefactors in “contact with people in need.”

    Philanthropy should “give voice to those who suffer.” Should we stop giving to the arts? To protect animals? Is human suffering the sole yardstick of our philanthropic choices?

    Again, thanks for raising these questions.

  • jglevitt's avatar

    BY jglevitt

    ON June 25, 2009 10:21 PM

    Hi Angie and Finola,
    Your editors are taking note, and indeed we here at SSIR would love more articles on cause marketing, fair trade, slow fashion, and other market solutions to social and environmental problems. Be the change you want to see in our journal; submit your article ideas to us! Check out our submissions guidelines and contact information at
    Yours in building better content,
    Alana Conner
    Senior Editor
    Stanford Social Innovation Review

  • BY Nicole Shore

    ON July 23, 2009 03:09 PM

    What a wonderfully thought provoking article! I wonder if there is statistical evidence to support many of these arguments? I think it would help those of us in the sector determine the best solution for the concerns raised.

    My instinct is that those who dedicatedly donate directly to charities have a fairly deep understanding of the significance of the charity and issues they support? Those influenced by cause marketing are likely individuals who are not as dialed-in and possibly haven’t given serious thought to philanthropy. Cause marketing is likely their first and only engagement.

    I fully agree with your points that cause marketing can link nonprofits to companies that may contradict a charity’s purpose, or benefit a company that lacks a thorough CSR plan. (Perhaps the old adage “charity begins at home” applies here?) And even more, it may inspire increased consumerism that leads to bigger implications. That said, cause marketing is affective at raising the profile of nonprofits and engaging newcomers at the most basic level, a double edged sword.

    I have to again agree with you that nonprofits would benefit from building deeper relationships with donors. The crux of the problem however, is that many nonprofits focus on engaging those that are already tuned-into their cause. For some time I’ve been concerned about the amount of effort made to bring new people into the fold or inspire public discourse on the issues many nonprofits aim to solve, beyond the basic donation request. Companies aren’t likely to play the role of informing and fully educating the public about a cause, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t leverage them for visibility. Nonprofits need to do a better job of that external communication. They’re also the ones that can best bring the points you raise to a larger audience.

    With increased discourse will come an awareness that leads to the resolution of many of the concerns you identify. The increased auditing by the public and media for “greenwashing” may provide some evidence of this?

  • Javier Amaro's avatar

    BY Javier Amaro

    ON April 26, 2010 05:02 AM

    Thank you Angela for your hard work in this article,

    I agree with your analysis. The key point here is probably not how the market can fix social issues caused by its own practices, but how our societies find a way to analyse, assess and solve a great number of issues which are conditioning the continuity of the humankind.
    It is clear increasing the consumption of products and/or services will not going to solve any problem, consumption as an aim by itself is not a solution but a problem.
    Developing a different social conscience, social responsibility, will require a great effort from all kind of players such as: politicians, technicians, professionals from different fields… ... and of course marketers. I can’t imagine Greeks philanthropos applying this definition for a tool used to increase profit, as profit has very little of generosity, benevolence, kindness, compassion, justice, and reciprocity…
    “The market” it’s not the right scenario to deal with social issues, as “the market” rules are drawn by a dollar value and nothing else.
    However, there is an interesting idea jumping in between lines of your article: the concept of using current structures of corporations and current players in the market as an instrument to develop and promote that “social responsibility” we need, in order to ensure the sustainability of our societies.
    I guess solutions are more likely to be efficient if we can regulate, monitor, review, assess, and impact in these corporations behaviour.

  • BY Nafeesa Mangat

    ON October 30, 2012 02:36 PM

    I feel your angst. I never had any good luck with this kind of stuff, either.

    So relieved to find out I’m not by myself!

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