April 23, 1993


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One way to evaluate generosity marketing is to consider where it shines the spotlight of attention. I would say that generosity marketing has three primary messages:

Look at me!

Have you ever received a solicitation email from a nonprofit asking you to “Join us in X”? Have you ever seen corporate advertising that prominently conveys the message “We’re helping out Y”? Has a church ever proudly let you know they’re playing a role in the community by doing Z? There’s no subtlety to the self-interest in these kinds of promotion. The emphasis is clearly on me or us before it’s on the cause.
This doesn’t mean the people involved aren’t well meaning or aren’t accomplishing good things. But it certainly lets you know that they are very much interested in putting themselves out there in the public eye under the banner of generosity. It might at least make you wonder about their sincerity.

Look at this!

The next strand of generosity marketing, instead of being obviously self-promoting, focuses on promoting a solution for a need. It might say that, if you want to keep poor families safer and reduce the destruction of forests, give $10 to The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Or it might ask you to help an organization defeat preventable blindness by giving to a trachoma eradication program. Whenever someone jumps on the bandwagon of the latest natural disaster, it’s likely to be a case of “Look at this!”
“Look at this!” generosity marketing is more selfless than “Look at me!” marketing. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with the pragmatism of solving a problem. But it’s focused on process rather than people.

Look at them!

The final class of generosity marketing is done by organizations to “bring awareness” to the plight of those in need. This includes posting videos or messages on social media, mentioning a cause in company communications and advertising, sharing articles and interviews, celebrities and musicians addressing issues in public forums, and so on. Its primary goal is not so much to point you to a solution as to bring to light and make real the situation demanding your attention. It tends to be very personal and focus on individuals affected by a problem. Unsurprisingly, then, “Look at them!” messaging relies heavily on the power of narrative to bring to life the folks who are in need. The idea is that we’ll recognize our shared humanity with them and start to think about what we can do to make a difference for them.

All three of these types of generosity marketing have their advantages and disadvantages, both for the needy people and for the business doing the marketing. If there is a trend, it is toward “Look at them!” messaging. It’s all very personal, and as I’ll say in a future chapter, the recipient is the hero of the story.

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