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Michael Hiltzik: The business of giving

November 23, 2010 |  7:28 pm

Criticizing philanthropic activities, whatever their guise, is a delicate matter. One might argue that giving is always better than not giving; on the other hand, misguided giving can drive worthier causes out of the marketplace.

As my Wednesday pre-Thanksgiving column observes, that's the conundrum of cause-related marketing -- or as Angela Eikenberry of the University of Nebraska labels it, "consumption philanthropy." Does it lead consumers to believe they've done their part merely by shopping? Does it favor charities that happen to affiliate themselves with the right product or company over those with less commercial savvy, but more important goals?

And don't all these philanthropy-oriented commercials devalue the process of giving, anyway?

The father of cause related marketing is Jerry Welsh of American Express, a company that still towers over the field.

The latest tax return of Soles4Souls, the Tennessee charity through which Skechers makes its donations, is here. Wayne Elsey's salary appears on page 7. For comparison, here's a roster of America's 50 largest charities, ranked according to revenue by the Christian Science Monitor last year. The smallest is 10 times the size of Soles4Souls; Elsey collected better pay than the CEOs of 31 of them.

The column begins below.

Thanksgiving is here, which means that we are now on the cusp of the giving season.

Or is it the marketing-of-giving season?

You are about to be inundated with corporate pledges to donate X dollars to a good cause for every Y dollars you spend with them or every Z product you buy. Some companies -- American Express, for instance -- even allow you to vote on which charities should be so endowed.

This is known as cause-related marketing. It’s inescapable at yuletide, but it has become so essential an element of all consumer marketing that it’s hard to avoid year-round.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik