Fattening Our Purses and Looking Like Fools

Monday, March 1, 2010 - 16:15

I received an email asking for support of a nonprofit group's bid to win the Pepsi Refresh Project. Maybe you've heard of it, the program that has people vote electronically for their favorite among a host of charities competing for a $50,000 payday. I chose not to vote for any of the entrants, even one that Community Partners sponsors through our incubator program. When our project leader invited my participation, I told her that I would not interfere with her decision to participate in what she regarded as a promising fundraising opportunity. However, I added, I disagreed with the notion of placing a public benefit venture in service to the marketing apparatus of a commercial enterprise. 

I'd be the first to accuse myself of perhaps taking too doctrinaire a position on this matter. After all, we live in a pretty permissive era, especially in the anything-goes reaches of the social entrepreneurship world. A lot of fuzzying-up of the lines occurs there between private interests and the public good. So, the Body Shop supports sustainable agriculture practices in emerging economies by buying products from suppliers that comply with certain standards. Nonprofit fair trade certification outfits lend their stamp of approval to coffee and other goods that wind up on American store shelves. And Pepsi - one of Earth's slickest spigots spewing oceans of high fructose corn syrup - revs up a bunch of otherwise honorable nonprofit organization leaders and turns them into pitchmen for its brand. 

In all these instances, I ask myself the question: to what beneficial end? I can at least see a defensible public-good rationale in the first two cases. But with the Pepsi Refresh Project, the sole benefit seems nothing more than $50,000 in the hands of a charity. That's got to be one of the cheapest national mass marketing campaigns ever concocted by an American corporation. And that clamor from Pepsi headquarters? Well, it's starting to sound like a chorus of hosannas to the marketing gods who pulled off this promotional coup with the willing complicity of thousands of well-intended, but misdirected folk just trying to serve people and communities in need.

Can we step back from such nonsense with any measure of perspective? Can we look for a minute at the way we shame our missions when we surrender them to the marketplace? I hope so. Before we sell our independent sector organizations into outright slavishness, we might ask ourselves about the wisdom of fattening our purses at the price of looking like fools.