Tomorrow, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will get on Oprah and talk about the $100 million he’s giving to Newark public schools, “coincidentally” timed before the release of the movie The Social Network, which is said to portray him in a less-than-positive light. I’m not the only person who is casting a jaundiced eye on this gift – (see Christopher Dawson in ZDnet) – but as a PR colleague said to me this morning, in essence, “he’s giving $100 million to needy public schools, who cares what his motivations are?”
Actually, I believe a public relations practitioner should care a lot. So I’m going to take Zuckerberg’s individual action as an opportunity to share some thoughts on corporate giving as a PR tool. While a “defensive donation” is an age-old tactic to immediately defuse a negative situation, it can backfire when the public feels it’s disingenuous. It’s a better practice to have corporate giving as part of well-rounded communications strategy. A one-off payment can feel more like a bribe, whereas goodwill is built up over time.
The most basic consideration – why should a company donate money – is pretty easy to answer. It feels good. Employees like it. Customers love it: Cone’s 2010 Cause Evolution Study finds that 85% of Americans have a more positive image of a product or company when it supports a cause they care about, and 61% of Americans say they would be willing to try a new brand or one unfamiliar to them if it supports a cause that’s important to them. Those are real bottom line implications that even the most hardened bean-counter can’t deny.
More tricky is figuring out what to support. It’s not only timing that makes Zuckerberg’s gift feel inauthentic, it’s the choice of cause. He has no connection to Newark, or even the public school system. There appears to be no alignment with Facebook’s business or employees – other than as a target audience. For corporate giving to be most effective, it has to make sense in the context of your business. For example, my former employer Sony has an extensive philanthropy program for each division. On the other side of the scale, a 125-person firm I’ve worked with leaves it to the employees to determine the recipient organization for the annual corporate gift, to which people can contribute as they choose. The Sony program is more comprehensive, but the latter still lifts the morale of the staff and makes an impact in the community.
Keep in mind that once word gets out that you’ve donated money, more charities will come calling, and you’re faced with having to say “no” to some worthy organizations. This is when the value of a clear strategy is very important. The Minnesota Toolkit for Giving gives a nice summary of how to develop a corporate giving program.
A good friend once said to me that a person can do the right thing for the wrong reasons. We’ll find out if the Zuckerberg contribution falls into that category tomorrow. But for your own business or even personal donations – whether you have $10 or $1 million to give – it’s wiser to think through these issues before you write the check. You never know when you might have to defend yourself on Oprah – or just to your friends on Facebook.
Later note: New York Magazine summarized the recent rash of “reputation-polishing noblesse oblige” in the October 10, 2010 issue – check it out here.