Do-Gooding Goes Mainstream

This is a guest post from Sokunthea Sa Chhabra of the Case Foundation. The post originally appear on the Social Citizens blog.

By Sokunthea Sa Chhabra

sokunthea I never really thought of just how much doing good has become a general part of our mainstream culture in America until I was speaking with media personality Shira Lazar at a conference, and she mentioned that being in the nonprofit world is actually “kinda sexy now.” I had to do a double-take when she said that to see that she was serious, and internally chuckle to myself a little. I’m deep in this world, and a total geek, so yes, I absolutely think that being in the cause-related field is awesome, but to hear it from her, it really hit me: we do live in an environment now, where doing good has surely gone mainstream.

Then, I tried to think of the factors that prove this, and here is what I initially came up with.

The mainstream media is talking about it.

The mainstream media has embraced doing good as an interesting story. Not only do media outlets, like the NY Times and Huffington Post have charity-related verticals and reporters covering the cause-related beat, but it’s also pervading other mainstream media outlets like TV. Major television networks are getting into the good game like never before. For example, the four major broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC – and other cable channels featured giving and volunteerism in more than 90 shows’ plotlines during the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s iParticipate Initiative last October, including shows like Ugly Betty, The View, and Desperate Housewives. They’re also even taking risks on shows and series based on doing good. Although short-lived, the TV series, the Philanthropist, was a pretty big deal for those in philanthropy in 2009.

Celebrities are doing it.

Interrelated to mainstream media is celebrities; one thrives on the other. There have been quite a few posts over on the Case Foundation site about celebrities doing good and we  will continue to feature great projects we come across, because one thing is for sure – people pay attention to what celebrities do. Like it or not, they have the ability to draw public attention to their interests and influence trends. Who doesn’t know that Bono is tied with relief work in Africa, Angelina Jolie is a UN Goodwill Ambassador, Ashton Kutcher is all over Twitter in support of causes like Malaria, or of Oprah’s Angel Network.

Social media makes it so easy to join the do good bandwagon.

Or, the Slacktivism argument. As defined by Wikipedia, Slacktivism is “considered a pejorative term that describes ‘feel-good’ measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. The acts also tend to require little personal effort from the slacktivist.”

What people have considered as examples of slacktivism include wearing awareness wristbands that support a cause, taking part in short-term boycotts such as Earth Hour, or putting a magnet/bumper sticker on a vehicle. And now, the quick and easy online versions include signing online petitions, joining a Facebook group, tweeting to support a cause, donating small dollar amounts online or via text-to-give campaigns, etc. Although Wikipedia notes that slacktivism has little or no practical effect, the merits and impact of slacktivism has been hotly debated. Here is what Dan Morrison wrote earlier this year on the Social Citizens blog, that I tend to agree with:

Slacktivism emerged because social media tools gave slackers with a heart an opportunity to get involved on their own terms. It is a mistake to think that slacktivists are just lazy. Some are too busy or uncomfortable getting involved with a cause in a public manner. Texting, tweeting and social media gave them the ability to give during the limited time they had or provided the social cover they needed to get involved. So I think we should ask not what the slacktivist can do for us, but what we can do for the slacktivist.

Regardless of which side of the argument you fall on, the fact of the matter is that the internet is making it so much easier to pipe up and say you support a cause.

Big brands are adopting causes.

Cause-marketing is everywhere – big brands are aligning themselves with causes as part of their companies’ marketing strategies – and studies show it works. One consumer behavior study conduced by Cone showed “cause-related marketing can exponentially increase sales, in one case as much as 74 percent, resulting in millions of dollars in potential revenue for brands.” Cause marketing campaigns cover a wide spectrum from getting people involved with walks and events, like the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer and American Express being a supporter of Taste of the Nation from the beginnings, to actual point of purchase and merchandizing partnerships, like Product (RED), which has partnered with many huge brands like the Gap, Emporio Armani, Nike, Apple, and Starbucks to donate a portion of proceeds from sales to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa.

A new generation of do-gooders.

Just try to throw an aluminum can in the trash and not recycling bin in front of my six-year-old niece, and she will be all over you with a lecture on where it’s supposed to go. It seems that children and teens are being raised with a consciousness about doing good and giving back that is infused in them from multiple angles now.

Volunteering in America claims that 26% of teens volunteered as of 2009, and while volunteer rates among teenagers declined between 1974 and 1989 (20.9% and 13.4%, respectively), the percentage of teenagers who volunteer more than doubled between 1989 and 2005 (from 13.4% to 28.4%). This may have something to do with the trend in schools requiring service credits for graduation from high school, and sometimes even junior high. There is some level of this happening in elementary schools as well, because my brother and sister-in-law never had to teach my niece about recycling. So, something that may have been taught to children and youth mainly by their parents, families and friends, is now being exposed to them via their schools as well.

So, what does all this mean?

I think there is plenty of evidence out there that suggests doing good has gone mainstream. But, the more important question is, what do we do with it? Although it’s fantastic that this idea of doing good is part of our nation’s general culture and psyche, does it mean that people will lose sight of real impact and will it be an excuse for people to feel like they don’t need to do more? How can the nonprofit sector (or all sectors for that matter) really embrace and then leverage this attitude?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and I will be expanding on the ideas in this post and integrating your comments into a series of posts over on the Case Foundation blog.


  1. Leah Lundquist says:

    I think the issues are so complex and the celebrities and corporations marketing them are so big that while it encourages interest, it also deters action. The nonprofit sector needs to find ways to bring these issues home locally for folks. How are these big issues playing out in my neighborhood and what can I do locally to achieve positive impact?

  2. as Cofounder of a 501c3 nonprofit KidSafe Foundation it is wonderful to see large companie giving back to the community. I feel rewarded every day by helping to keep children safe from abuse, abduction, bulling and safety online. We need help to bring our prevention education programs to more children. 95% of abuse & exploitation of children is preventable through education. We owe it to children to give them the skills they need to be the first line of defense in their own safety. If a big corporation or a celebrity backs a cause…that cause becomes a a success. We are one person away from that!!

  3. Leah and Sally, thanks for your comments!

    Leah, I truly wonder the same about whether this mainstreaming deters action, and believe it’s up to local nonprofits to find ways to capitalize on the greater interest brought on by celebrities and corporations.

    I can’t wait to hear some suggestions from folks on concrete ways that can be done and examples of tactics and programs that have worked!

  4. Allison Jones says:

    I would add that social media (and the internet in general) expose people to information, communities, and different ways of doing good. We have the opportunity to SEE what is being done, to IMAGINE what can be done, and connect with those who want to ACT.

    We also have a president who emphasizes service; we’ve seen large organization’s mobilize to address pressing issues (Red Cross in Haiti for example) and folks try to scurry to the nonprofit sector when their for-profit jobs went bust while we are looked to as resources for people who need support.

    In other words, I’m noticing nonprofits becoming a greater part of our national conversation.

  5. It’s tempting to say that whatever generates and nourishes the philanthropic spirit is a good thing. But I think there IS a risk associated with “impulse philanthropy” of the sort we saw during the Haiti crisis when people were texting $5 on their phones without even knowing where those dollars were going. If you don’t really KNOW, it isn’t likely you will stay connected (witness the staggering drop off in attention to the Haiti crisis). That $5 means little to you: you won’t even see it till the phone bill comes in.

    It isn’t just nonprofits that have to figure out how to get people more engaged. I think the philanthropic community itself needs to take on that job. That’s one of the things we have done at the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington. We tell the stories of the great, vetted (by a volunteer team of 100 professionals in all fields of philanthropy), nonprofits that are featured in our annual print Catalogue and on our website ( We want people to get engaged by the work of the whole organization, not just with a piece of it or for a short moment in time. We tell the story in a way that’s lively and engaging and helps donors see why they should care. I believe there is a longer-term benefit to this type of involvement: higher levels of giving and of donor satisfaction — which in turn leads to higher levels of engagement. We may be swimming against the stream, but we’re counting on the fact that philanthropy IS central — to individuals, to companies, to family foundations — and that what they want is to find and learn about worthy organizations so that they can give with confidence and get engaged with something substantial that matters. This is a more enduring kind of connection. We’ve raised over $12 million in seven years for community-based nonprofits in the DC region. Check out our website ( it’s a model of what can be done on a local level. And it works.

    • Excellent point Barbara. I agree that it is not just getting people to give that is important, but making sure that their gifts result in both outcomes for the beneficiaries AND satisfaction on the part of the donor. I believe those two goals are not separate, but in fact should be driven by the same set of actions. I can think of nothing more satisfying to a donor than making a gift that they know actually makes a difference.

      • Completely agree with both of you, Barbara and Sean. Deeper engagement is definitely the ultimate goal.

        I do think there is still merit to the masses contributing little and it adding up to more, and in the process everyone getting a little more educated and a little more aware, and hopefully that will continue to compound, even if it is slowly and little by little. I just did an interview with folks at Crowdrise ( who are probably on the other end of the spectrum – they don’t care that their incentives are what gets people give – at the end of the day, they gave and that money is going towards doing some good. Their engagement may not be with the organization and start with people, networks and a fun platform, but again, they’re still engaging in some way, and hopefully that progresses and leads to other exploration of issues.

        I’m glad to add the Catalogue of Philanthropy to the list of models that are working!

  6. Geri Stengel says:

    The mainstreaming of philanthropy is absolutely good but, unless we are careful, it can be a transitory fad rather than a mindset change. Not for your niece, of course. She will always recycle. And the students who get involved in community service through school requirements may always have a more generous view about helping others.

    The risks lie in overwhelming people with Tweets, eblasts, and opportunities to donate to the point that requests for donations are tuned out, like wallpaper. Or that giving $5 with a text message is deemed enough when much more is needed. Or, as another person commented, that people will text without thinking to scams or ineffective groups.

    Our task in the nonprofit sector is to educate donors just as environmentalists have educated consumers. Your niece recycles because she has been thoroughly trained to do so. We must educate donors about vetting causes, about effectiveness, about the value of time as well as money, about becoming involved in developing solutions as well as texting $5.

    • I absolutely agree. The mainstreaming of philanthropy can’t just be about MORE it needs to be about SMARTER philanthropy. I was thrilled to hear Warren Buffett say exactly that on the conference call he held about the Giving Pledge. I’ll be writing more about the call later.

  7. Kate DeYoe says:

    The rise in “peer-to-peer” sites, such as and my own, is another trend to note. These sites enable people to make loans or donations easily and in small amounts, if desired. The peer-to-peer aspect gives people the opportunity to really connect with the cause they are contributing to, as individual stories of individual people are highlighted. This serves to remove some of the “slactivism” that could occur with micro-giving. In fact, it is part of the culture of these donor communities to utilize the online tools provided to promote the cause and “their” grantee via social media and other online channels. I think it is seeing the issue at such a personal level that is the strongest motivator for people to actually take action and donate.

  8. Eric says:

    So I am a little confused. Sean replied to Geri’s comment and said it can’t just be about MORE but it has to be SMARTER. Does that mean that it’s implicit in the post by Sokunthea that because “do-gooding” is mainstream there is more of it? I don’t know that I would agree with that, but that comes down to questions of history and how doing good is measured. Without getting into all that, I just want to point out that it seems to me that “mainstream” in this post means “mainstream media”–not popular or common among the general population. Most of the reasons put forth–media, celebrities, big-name branding, etc.–are closely connected to the adoption and marketing of primarily commercial entities whose motives for doing good are at times imperceptibly tied to their commercial motives. I’m not questioning the motives of the entire movement–although whenever commercial and philanthropic actions share the same field motives will always be hard to gauge–but I question the thesis that because we SEE more giving on tv, the internet, and other manifestations of the media, that there IS more giving. I admire those that use their power, money, and influence to inspire others and strengthen causes. But philanthropy is not new and while this blog may be dealing with the high-level dollar stuff, I think its important to realize that all this we are talking about may not be the greatest type of philanthropy–in amount or value. And if you accept that, then you accept that we necessarily have more now than before. But if I missed the mark you’ll excuse me for waxing philosophical. Thanks for the post.

    • Eric says:

      *Then you accept that we don’t necessarily have more now than before.

    • Good thoughts Eric. Sokunthea will have to answer for herself. But I for one would agree with you that the “mainstream” does not *yet* mean that we are seeing more financial giving.

      As I wrote in this post my thesis that we are in a Second Great Wave of Giving is a thesis and not yet proven. But I do think that the trends that Sokunthea points to are real and indicative of real changes. It is hard to believe that media exists separate from reality and that the trends you see in the media have no reality.

      For instance, it would be hard to measure exactly how much “greener” American citizens are these days. But the “mainstreaming” of the environmental movement certainly seems to be correctly picking up on changing cultural norms. Sokunthea’s note about her niece’s insistence on recycling is an story that anyone with kids is familiar with.

      So in short, I agree with you. The indications that we are pointing to are not proof. But they are important indications which must appear before proof arrives.

      • Really interesting discussion and points – Eric, Sean, and Geri!

        When I wrote about doing good gone mainstream, I was not talking about whether or not “more” is being done or implying that there may be greater “impact” as a result. I was really talking more to the “popularization” of the notion of doing good and how that has spread. I think it’s great that it’s spreading to MORE people, because of social and other forms of media, celebrities, etc. Agree with everyone, that plenty has been done – great organizations have been in existence for a long time – well before this popularization occurred/is occurring. But, as others have mentioned, I think it’s up to these great organizations and the sector to take advantage of trend, and find ways to get people more engaged and educated.

        As mentioned at the end of my post, I really am concerned that this popularization may mean less focus on impact. I’m glad that so many of the readers out there have been chiming in that the nonprofit sector needs to find ways to ensure this isn’t so and that this popularization and mainstreaming of doing good isn’t just a fad and a meaningful shift in societal perspective and action!