The air in Davos was so thick with gloom over the convulsing economy  and Wall Street greed [$20 billion in bonuses paid out despite hefty bank bailouts and historic layoffs], that many CEOs leaving this year’s the World Economic Forum  for home “bore the harrowed looks of survivors of the Donner Party,” according to Newsweek columnist Daniel Gross.

No wonder, then, that as layoffs mount amid surveys showing public anger with CEOs at peak levels, a growing number of brands—from Frito-lay to Kellogg’s—are scrambling to adopt-a-nonprofit activist for their spring season ad campaigns. [Listen up, nonprofits seeking revenue] For the upcoming Oscars, for example, TrueNorth snacks will run a storytelling ad that profiles Majora Carter’s work with Sustainable South Bronx to “green the Bronx and “create green-collar jobs.” [Recall Kellogg’s recent Superbowl spot encouraging moms to “plant a seed” and nominate local playing fields for renovation.] Meanwhile, corporate volunteering panels are flooding Manhattan’s philanthropy events calendars for spring. Simon Sinek, president of Sinek Partners, a New York-based brand consultancy that specializes in “corporate refocusing” told BrandWeek magazine recently that “with President Obama, we are ushering in an era of service. Community service is now bigger than green.”

Surveys of younger customers, it seems—members of Generation G (for good)—are also fueling the season’s stepped-up corporate responsibility campaigns. According to, there is a rapidly growing segment of cause-wired, global consumers aged 40 or younger who now consider “generosity” an important social and business mindset. “As consumers are disgusted with greed and its current dire consequences for the economy,” the report says, “has there ever been more urgency for corporations to ditch the greed and embrace generosity?” The report also says that “sharing is the new giving” and posts the question: “In this business climate, can you really afford not to spend some time figuring out how to get a little closer to your customers?”

Compiled for business leaders in more than 120 countries from a global network of 8,000 trendspotters, the report lists various ways firms might use social media and other initiatives to create social responsibility programs that matter. Among them: 

  • Co-donate. Collaborate with customers about how often to donate—and to which causes. Use online and mobile technologies “to make the most of impulse-driven and networked fundraising.” (
  • Be eco-generous. Don’t just offset your company’s impact on the environment; find ways to improve it. (
  • Engage in “free love”—in this case, give away some goods, like free coffees or free travel guides to consumers.
  • Use brand butlers to help customers make the most of the company’s products. IKEA, for example, loans out branded bikes with trailers to its customers in Denmark to help them transport their purchases home.
  • Engage in “perkonomics.Offer perks like reserved parking to, say, owners of a specific automotive brand, or let preferred customers jump queues at busy events.
  • Offer “tryvertising.” Let customers try products before they purchase them to make their purchasing decisions based on their product experiences rather than corporate brand messages.

There’s no question: with public trust in CEOs and corporations at rock-bottom and the change mantra out of Washington [and Davos] and this week’s TED2009 still freshly potent, cause-wired social entrepreneurs have never had a better opportunity to boost traction globally for their Web-powered ideas.

In that vein, expect even more aggressive efforts this spring by leaders of the social enterprise movement to track and compile the rate of return of social media in for-profit and nonprofit enterprises. Says new media expert Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organization, “Design an environment where people can feel good at what they’re doing…and they’ll flock to your venture.”

For more on designing initiatives for generosity that also work for the bottom line, see Shirky’s talk at the recent Pop!Tech conference in Maine, below:

imageMarcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.