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July 24, 1993

The Selfishness of Generosity

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Clearly, being generous is cool. Today everyone (or so it seems) wants to do good for others. And if you’re on the receiving end of this generosity, it can be an amazing thing.
But the hipness of the generosity brand aside, it brings some problems with it. For two, there are inauthenticity and judgmentalism.

How generous are you, really?

In the business of generosity, organizations almost always have a double purpose. Yes, the fact that Coca-Cola temporarily suspended its advertising helped it devote more money to Typhoon Haiyan relief. But that very suspension of advertising gained highly valuable publicity for the company—and that was no doubt a part of the plan when it was hatched in Atlanta. I don’t mean to pick on Coca-Cola. Good for them for helping storm survivors. The fact is, the same dynamic plays out all the time when companies try to do well by doing good. Generosity marketing is always both an end in itself (the generosity part) and a means to an end (the marketing part).
But for-profit businesses are not the only entities with a double purpose in their generosity. Nonprofit organizations that depend on donors also hope to gain attention for themselves through what they do, thus growing their ability to do more good works in the future. And even if NFPs as organizations seek a low profile, those working inside them and their donors likely get a return in the form of approval from others or at least a personal sense of meaning and satisfaction.
In short, generosity is rarely 100 percent altruistic. There’s almost always an admixture of self-interest. And it’s very hard to root that self-interest out (if that would even be desirable).
We can say, though, that blatant attempts at self-aggrandizement through trying to co-opt the generosity brand have a way of backfiring. Millennials, especially, have their poser antennae out. They will not give many chances to sound disingenuous or in authentic—one strike and you are out. The authors of an article on generosity marketing wrote,

While these campaigns do provide much-needed support to worthy causes, they are intended as much to increase company visibility and improve employee morale as to create social impact. Tobacco giant Philip Morris, for example, spent $75 million on its charitable contributions in 1999 and then launched a $100 million advertising campaign to publicize them. Not surprisingly, there are genuine doubts about whether such approaches actually work or just breed public cynicism about company motives.

That’s one way of being inauthentic. Here’s another: Jeff Shinabarger says, “The greatest concern, as businesses become more generous, is that they are telling stories that are not true. People promise things that they are not doing. Or come up with shallow, short-sighted solutions.”
Some organizations are out-and-out frauds. Every major disaster brings out scammers, such as the charity group that raised $700,000 for a quilt honoring 9/11 survivors and never produced the quilt. On the list of America’s worst charities are many that have given less than 1 percent of their funds away in aid. Hundreds of suicides in India have been linked to microfinancing companies that were unscrupulous about recovering debts.
Even the best-intentioned generosity organizations can go wrong. Books such as Toxic Charity, When Helping Hurts, The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good, and The World Is Not Ours to Save warn of hubris and carelessness in generosity works.
So we’re left with some hard questions about what’s real and what’s viable in generosity:
Do you have a house divided when the profit motive commingles with an impulse to help others? In other words, might mixing business and generosity lead to being distracted from the business and amateurish at the generosity?
If generosity marketing campaigns are designed to trigger obligation, guilt, or compulsion, are they appealing to people’s worst nature instead of their best? Is it even possible to be motivated by compassion and justice to do generosity marketing, or are shame, fear, and guilt the only real muscles that move the consumers?
Will competition lead marketers to oversensationalize social problems or to overstate what an organization is doing to defeat those problems?
As generosity marketing grows, will it cause so much noise that people will begin to tune it out?
Are some people so eager to adopt the generosity brand that they will throw money and resources at problems they don’t really understand and maybe exacerbate the problems in the long run?
Are we reaching a point where the explosion of foundations, nonprofits, and initiatives is becoming reduplicative and wasteful?
Has generosity fatigue perhaps already set in?
Will cynicism eventually grow until it fatally tarnishes the generosity brand?
Will organizations quietly pull out of the generosity business when it no longer serves as a competitive differentiator?

Don’t you care?

These days, we’re wearing our causes on our sleeves. And on our T-shirts. And on our wristbands. And on our Facebook pages and our Twitter feeds. And inked into our skin. And stuck on our car bumpers. We slap stickers on our shirts announcing that we voted or gave blood, and we bombard our friends with email solicitations to sponsor our favorite charity run. Just mention human trafficking or poverty in Africa, and boy, let me tell you what I’ve been doing.
The notion of not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing (Matthew 6:2-4) has gone the way of the dodo. What does that say about what’s going on in our hearts as we practice generosity?
It’s not just a matter of pride. There is also a subtle, or often not so subtle, judgmentalism that comes out of our in-your-face identification with generosity.
Like certain other concept brands, generosity has “social weight.” In other words, not only is the brand popular on its own merits, but in fact many people actively exert pressure to try to get others to conform to the brand.
We’ve seen this script played out before. Back in the 1990s—the heyday of the “Made in the USA” branded concept—there was social pressure to buy American. Then in the 2000s, when “Going Green” first became a prominent branded concept, there was pressure to do the right thing for the environment by recycling, buying energy-saving light bulbs, and bringing your own bags to the grocery store.
Likewise today, when it comes to the generosity branded concept, there is social pressure to do good for others. This is positive if it means that more good is being done. But social weight can often lead to social ostracism.
If being generous is cool, not being generous is not cool.
Volunteering on your day off is cool. Skipping the volunteer construction day for Habitat for Humanity because you were too tired to get up early on a Saturday makes you a social pariah on a level with someone who kicks puppies.
Have you ever been to a party, finished a drink, and asked the host, “Do you recycle?” You can actually feel the withering stares and hear the angry thoughts of other partygoers if the answer is no. You may even detect an audible “How can you not recycle?”
Generosity is quickly attaining a similar social weight. Soon, if not already, you will hear others say, “How can you not give?” or “How can you not volunteer?”
What they will really be asking is, “How can you not care?”

The generosity brand is supposed to stand for people coming together to make a real difference. But when we let our corrupt human natures produce judgmentalism and falsehood, we have inverted the brand. And robbed it of its power to do good.

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