The black box of giving

Today we can track nearly everything about ourselves. American Express and will tell you how much you’ve spent each month, and where you’ve spent it. Sites like and Memolane allow you to monitor your social media activity. And if you’re a video gamer, you’ve long been used to nearly every game tracking your achievements and scores. Heck, even Netflix does a half-way decent job of telling you what you’ve watched.

Yet where are the tracking tools for giving? There aren’t any.

The size of the charitable giving market in the US far exceeds industries like video games or movie rentals. In the US, individuals give well over $200 billion to charity each year, a multiple of what is spent on video games or movies. With so many dollars directed towards charity, it’s amazing that better tracking tools for giving haven’t been built. Why hasn’t this been done? Here are three reasons:

1. Decentralization – Giving is done through many different contexts: cash and checks offline, and donations online through a myriad of websites and portals. Until there is linkage among these methods, it remains difficult to track activity.

2. No greater return – What’s the upside for someone willing to create such a tool? You can’t make money off of other people’s giving unless you can deliver them a markedly better experience.

3. Lack of a common identity – Each time you give through a new site online, you have to register all over again. The philanthropic world hasn’t done a great job of tapping into existing online identifies, like those established through Facebook, Google Accounts, or even Amazon. Utilizing these tools would be a huge first step.

What do you think? Why aren’t there better tools available to track one’s charitable giving?

Why there is no such thing as corporate values

Did BP lack good values, or did Tony Hayward?

Recently I’ve been reading about corporations and the effect they can have on society. A book called “We First“, by Simon Mainwaring, is a great example – it lauds companies that don’t just make money, but also pursue positive social outcomes. If you haven’t read Simon’s book yet, do it. At least check out his blog.

Outside of “We First”, you’ll find plenty of discussion around corporate social impact. There are “socially responsible companies“, “eco-conscious companies“, “socially conscious businesses“, and of course, the most “sustainable companies“. Whatever that means. Inevitably, writers ask why more companies aren’t acting responsibly: what they should or should not be doing, how they should change, what their values should be, and so on.

However, these discussions are missing the point. Companies can’t and won’t change themselves. But we talk about about ideas like “corporate values”, as if they existed in some independent space. But there really isn’t such thing as corporate values. There are only individual values. We seem to ignore that fact that corporations are made entirely of, and run exclusively by, individuals.

So if we are going to have a discussion about the behavior of corporations, we necessarily have to have a talk about individual values. The effect a corporation has on society is a direct result of the values possessed by the people running that company. In other words, corporate behavior is a reflection of the combined values, influence, and behavior of each individual within. So why don’t we discuss individual values more often? Why don’t we hear about the “500 Most Socially Conscious Managers”, or the “100 Most Responsible Board Members”?

I’ll admit that we do hear a great deal about celebrity individuals – the all-star CEOs, the point guards, the pop music stars, and the politicians. But these don’t count – their celebrity persona may not reflect the real individual, and too much of what we see is filtered by the media.

But it’s still easier for us to praise or vilify the celebrities, because they won’t do the same to us. It’s a one-way communication. We feel free to chastise someone like Tony Hayward, because he’ll never engage in a quid pro quo. So should we turn to criticizing our peers instead? Not if we want to risk destroying our relationships and are willing to open ourselves to the same critique. Are you willing to do this?

So where does this leave us? Who do we turn to if we want to improve ourselves and society? Socrates said, “A self examined life is not worth living”. I’ll extend that further, but saying “A self-examined life is the only way we can hope to have companies that are better stewards of society.” If individuals don’t change, nothing else will. We have to be willing find our faults from within! I know that’s not an easy proposition. But it’s the only way we can really hope for any change, in my view.

If this point resonates with you, I’d recommend checking out Sam Davidson’s blog. He articulates ideas about self-examination far better than I can. In fact, one of his recent articles inspired this post in the first place.

What role do you think individual values play in setting the behavior of corporations?

3 Ways to Improve Cause-Related Retail

I love the idea of joining retail purchases with charitable donations. It provides shoppers with both the prompt and the opportunity to give, creating an easy donation transaction. Here are a few examples: you purchase (RED) coffee from Starbucks, and some of the proceeds are donated to the Global Fund; you check out at Kroger and are asked to donate $1 to a local charity; you buy a bottle of Merlot at, and a few dollars is sent to the charity of your choice.

These examples have undoubtedly raised a great deal of funds for charity – (RED) alone has garnered over $170 MM since 2006. But does that mean that cause-related purchases are marketed as well as they could be? I don’t think so. The “make a purchase/make a donation” model is still relatively new, and sometimes a bit awkward. Here are three suggestions on how to improve it:

1. Add value, not price

As a business, if you’re going to donate 10% of a product’s sale price to charity, don’t just mark up the price by 10% and expect me to buy it. You’re not adding anything to the equation. Instead, add value in some other way. Tell me that because you donate half of your profits to charity, you can sell your product at a competitive price and give 10% to charity. Or offer a matching donation from a third-party, so shoppers feel like that their donated dollars go further. Be creative. Have some skin in the game. But don’t simply pass the buck to the customer.

2. Give me some credit

Hey, I just bought your product, and I supported a charity! But so what?! If you want customers to feel really good about what they’ve done, show them you appreciate it. Talk about the customers who’ve done the most to support causes on your Facebook or Twitter feed. Give customers who patronize your cause-related products discounts on future purchases, or special access to sale events. A ‘small thank’ you can go a long way.

3. Don’t overwhelm me

Are you asking customers to make a donation every time they interact with your business? Maybe I already made a donation earlier in the day, and I’m tapped out. So I might get a little annoyed if I feel like I’m getting shaken down each time I pick up a bag of groceries. If you ask me too often, or make me feel guilty if I decline, then I’ll just shop somewhere else. Make me feel good for giving, but not bad for saying no.

These are just three ideas – what other ways can cause-related retail be improved? What are some good examples of this being done well?