The Rebranding of Philanthropy

A lot of effort has gone into rebranding philanthropy from “giving away money” to “making a social investment”. While the shift has supporters and detractors, I think the most useful and interesting way to think about the underlying motives for the shift is as an attempt to move philanthropy from the “should” category (you “should” work out, eat healthy, call your mom and give to charity) to the “want” category (you “want” to have fun, feel good about yourself, eat yummy food). My post last week about the rebranding of baby carrots as “junk food” and the lessons to be learned for philanthropy was meant to tap into this line of thinking.

In the Fast Company article about baby carrots being branded as junk food, the carrot company CEO talked about how most all of the advertising companies who applied to work with them tried to make baby carrots more fun, but kept returning to their status as a “health food”. It was only the winning advertising company who completely took baby carrots out of the “should” category (you should eat healthy food) and put them into the “want” category (you want to eat this cool, fun, tasty product).

This weekend at the grocery story I ran into this new packaging of Mandarin oranges:

Junk Food Oranges

The basic concept is similar to the junk food baby carrot campaign. Note the plastic, shiny packaging, the “cool” character on a skateboard, the tagline “One of life’s sweetest pleasures”, and the “grab ‘n go” handle.

But the company doesn’t go all the way. The product was in the produce department, not in the snack food aisle, and they still stick the “healthy snack, naturally sweet” tag on the packaging.

Of course, while philanthropy does make people feel good and can be marketed in the “want” category, a major part of what makes people feel good is the idea that they are doing good for others. It is like a health food that only tastes good if you believe it is healthy.

In this hilarious segment of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David finds out just how bitter the giving experience can be when he suddenly feels like his giving is in the “want” category instead of the “should” category. When he suddenly feels like his giving is something he’s doing for himself instead of others, his giving loses its meaning and value. (warning: some explicit language at the end of the segment)

(Click here to see the video if you are viewing this in an email)

So what’s the answer? I don’t know. But I do know that philanthropy shouldn’t be in the “guilt” category. Those things you do because you “should” even though you really don’t want to. I’ve always thought that the phrase “give back” when used in philanthropy sounds like the donor has “taken” something that must be returned (and in fact, I think many people think about giving this way).

As we explore new blended value propositions, I think it is important that we keep in mind the strange characteristics of philanthropy. It is like really tasty health food, or maybe junk food that’s good for you. But whatever it is, it is something people do enjoy and we need to embrace this aspect of the giving experience.


  1. Sean,
    I like the junk-carrot idea; it is, as you say, at least intriguing.

    In Brazil, the term philanthropy was never big (maybe because philanthropy itself was never big, although solidarity is high), and it was essentially rebranded “social impact”.

    Unfortunately, it was done in a way that ends up conveying that philanthropy is bad/old and social investment is good/new. But until very recently, it created no big problems; one just substituted ‘social investment’ for grant/donation and kept reading.

    Of course, some people would be more strategic in their philanthropy and would prefer the term social investment, but they are not the majority.

    With the rise of social finance, though, ‘social investment’ now does create confusion, for now there are investments with typical return (ie financial rather than social) that are social by intention … Who will sort that one out?

    The lesson is rebrand, but don’t throw rocks at the past. They might come back and hit you in the head.

    • Yes! I really wish there was a different phrase than “social investment” or “grant” for a donor that seeks to provide philanthropic capital to nonprofit organizations so they can grow and thrive. Language is important.

  2. Actually, a 2006 National Academy of Sciences study investigated the “the neural mechanisms of charitable donations using functional magnetic resonance imaging.” They found that, basically, we’re wired to give. Their experiment involved a making a series of choices to donate or not to a variety of charities. But the interesting part was that participants were entitled to $128 that they could get all or part of, depending how their own monetary interests influenced their decisions. The more altruistic their choices, the more money they got. The results showed, though, that people were more likely to forego monetary rewards in order to be altruistic. In fact, the neural system that was engaged in making those choices about the donations was the mesolimbic system, which is typically activated by selfish pleasures, such as food, sex, drugs, and money.
    I don’t think the issue is “rebranding” as much as it is “repositioning.” The underlying difficulty is how nonprofits see themselves. Or don’t see themselves. They cringe at the word “business,” but that’s exactly what they are. If you overlay a standard business model onto a nonprofit, the services they offer become products and donations become purchases. No business ever made a sale by flashing its annual report, yet that’s exactly what nonprofits do every time they ask for money. They present a laundry list of the great things they’ve accomplished followed by a generic description of their programs and the faceless people who benefit from them. Not the kind of thing that hits an altruistic G spot. When an organization sells services, they’re selling a solution – an end benefit. The best nonprofits recognize this. Heifer is a great example. It doesn’t try to sell donors on supporting some abstract agricultural assistance program. They sell a cow. A cow that will help a very specific family achieve economic independence. And in offering these personalized scenarios, they create an emotional connection between the donor and the end benefit of the donation – which is a strong transaction driver.
    So, I think the issue is getting nonprofits to see themselves, and operate according to business best practices, and that includes changing how they market and sell their “products.”

  3. Geri Stengel says:

    “Giving back” and “Pay it forward” are both good concepts. We’ve all benefited from the generosity, kind acts, or good will of others and we will need to again. It’s a given in life: No matter how self-made you think you are, some one helped you along the way. Making philanthropy something we both feel good about and feel obliged to do would be a great marketing project.

  4. Nice article Sean. I like the term social investment. I started a blog called 365give and I give every day and blog about it. After 209 days of giving – not always money – I feel I am making a social investment. Giving is social especially with social media making philanthropy and giving the next greatest trend. A trend I hope continues for a long time. No matter how you give, money, time or expertise it does feel good!

  5. Sean, you know as well as anyone that people (including me) have never liked the term “philanthropy” in the first place :). It kind of starts there. I like using the phrase “investing” because it connotes an active, engaged, intentional way of going about your philanthropy. It also suggests one is looking for a social ROI. That can get a little wonky, heady sounding and philanthropy is and should be, at its core, a values- heart-driven endeavor. If someone can come up with the right phrase someday, I’ll be first in line to use it

    • How about the term “gifting”? When someone donates–whether it be time, money, or their skills–they are really giving a gift of themselves or their assets. There is not really an expectation of something given back is there? I like “investing”, but even then there is inherently the idea that you put something in and you are going to get something out. So often, people are disappointed when they donate to a cause and then don’t really get any feedback from the organization. When you call it a “gift”, I wonder if it changes the expectation from the outset.

  6. I was at a meeting yesterday in which the presenter pointed out that a whole vocabulary has been created over the past decade around social finance, social entrepreneurship and scaling. His point was that the vocabulary was evidence of a successful movement. I agree, but also worry that the vocabulary is too wonky. But that’s OK, first definitions need to be created then they can go mainstream.

    I just figure a little less ROI and a little more shiny plastic wrapping with some comedy thrown in is probably a good thing!

  7. Sean.

    The question is not why or why not the rebranding is working per se, but (1) who is driving the rebranding (2) Why is the rebranding necessary by said driver and (3) are they really in a position to be driving.


    • I have to disagree Richard. I’m far more interested in results than motivations. Understanding motivations is clearly important if you want to understand how the trend might evolve, but if self-interested organizations engage in branding that drives additional giving that results in better outcomes, I’m all for it.

      • “better” results for whom is ultimately the question.

        Through my work what I have seen more and more is that it is the donor who feels they can define “better” and push for “better” because they have been successful in a completely unrelated business.

        Of course, the reverse is true as well, and some NGOs have benefited from the experience, but does that mean that the donors should be leading the rebranding?

        … and honestly, has all the rebranding improved or changed anything? Are the most “efficient” NGOs seeing more “impact” investments? Or is there more confusion in the market that is preventing organizations who deserve (and need) funding from getting it?