Home > Lessons in School, The Call to Speak out > Altruism and Corporate Donations – Oxymoron?

Altruism and Corporate Donations – Oxymoron?

Update (October 23, 2012): Yesterday, I received a message from Jennifer from Indigo’s Adopt a School program (see below). She very tactfully addressed some of my concerns and corrected the information I was given and I thought it only fair to hear their perspective.

Still, I think my general argument holds even though the specific example of Indigo’s quite successful charity run sounds like it is different than what I was informed at the actual store. My main argument is that corporate involvement generally have mixed motivations. I know people who quietly donate large amounts of money – both from their corporations and privately – they give of their excess or profits….and often don’t need a campaign. I would like to see more corporations do this…. instead, so many corporate involvement is not altruistic at heart, but a marketing ploy – and a good one too (increased spending, free marketing as everyone shares on facebook and other forms of social media and electronic messaging)! As I mention in my post, maybe this is the only way to get the public involved – 50,000 books for children is a pretty awesome feat! But I would be interested in knowing whether profits are increased through a charity campaign.

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Still, corporate involvement generally have mixed motivations. I know people who quietly donate large amounts of money – both from their corporations and privately – they give of their excess or profits….and often don’t need a campaign. I would like to see more corporations do this…. instead, so many corporate involvement is not altruistic at heart, but a marketing ploy – and a good one too (increased spending, free marketing as everyone shares on facebook and other forms of social media and electronic messaging)! As I mention in my post, maybe this is the only way to get the public involved – 50,000 books for children is a pretty awesome feat! But I would be interested in knowing whether profits are increased through a charity campaign.

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I have a few confessions to make. I love books. And I love to cook. And, when I combine my two loves, it will come to no surprise that I love cookbooks. In fact, it doesn’t take much for me to justify adding a new cookbook to my shelf. I recently made the choice to become vegan which, in my opinion, requires a whole new set of cookbooks. I’ve had my eye on two books and I had decided that after a few weeks of hard work and study, I would use my first pay cheque to by myself some vegan cookbooks.

In those weeks of anticipation, I received an email from Indigo Books promoting their “Adopt a school” program. I understood from that email that if I bought $25 worth of books, Indigo would donate a book of my choice to a school of my choice.* What could be more perfect than to buy something for myself and have a needy school benefit?!

I went to Indigo to make my choice and said I would like to donate a book to a school in the Parkdale area that my housemate is involved in. I was informed that actually, each branch of Indigo chooses a school and they pick the books. The school that this particular Indigo branch had chosen was one that I knew was in an area of poverty and so that was fine with me too.

Then the cashier asked me: “How much would you like to donate?”

Perplexed, I explained that I understood that Indigo would be donating a book.

She responded that they take donations from customers and then purchase books. I asked her what the advantage was for me to give Indigo money versus buying a book myself for a local school. At this point, the manager chimed in and reiterated that Indigo would be taking the books to the schools. I restated my question, wondering if there was some benefit, such as discounted price or dollar-for-dollar matches for anything that I donate. The manager stated that this was not the case. So I asked him again – what is the difference between me buying a book and giving it to a school in need and them doing it? His answer was simply, “Well, I guess you could do that too”.

This situation made me think of our conversations in my community engagement class about how companies have some sort of promotional effort to benefit the “needy” and good willing customers buy into their promotion without really understanding what is at play here, who it actually benefits, and whether the “needy” ever see what the “givers” think they will. Someone in class gave the example of some shoe company that claimed to offer shoes to people in developing countries while unbeknown to those who buy shoes in order for their purchase to benefit others as well do not realize that it is the cheapest footwear that the company donates.

Donating books to underfunded and underprivileged schools is a lofty ideal and organizing such efforts should be applauded. However, I do not think Indigo, and other corporations who give donations, are actually all that ‘generous’ or ‘altruistic’.

Corporations receive tax receipts for monetary donations as well as gifts in kind (Man, 2006). Many corporations ask you if you want to add one dollar to your purchase for some particular charity. Then they can use the sum of these donations to receive a corporate tax deduction. In addition, corporations can also donate their goods to charities and receive corporate tax reductions.

The Indigo Books manager did not admit this – but the difference between me donating a book to a school by myself and Indigo doing that with my money is that Indigo will receive the benefit of a tax receipt and the glory so to speak of having run a successful fundraising event. All over Facebook right now, my friends are sharing and liking Indigo’s promotion – promoting people to buy books for themselves so that books are being donated to schools during this limited time. What a brilliant marketing scheme – the public pays for the donations through buying more books, Indigo gets a charitable tax receipt and people spread the word and encourage all their friends to by books!

At the end of the day, maybe such strategies are required to motivate people to attend to the needs of our society. Indeed, a book drive that provides books to needy children is definitely better than needy children without books. But I remain skeptical of Indigo’s motivations – it seems to me that this has marketing written all over the disguise of altruism.

In researching, I have discovered that the promotion is actually slightly different as one has to buy a gift card for $25. However, I have not explored that option, nor was this option made available. In addition, I wrote about my experience on the Indigo Books Facebook page and it was promptly removed, rather than corrected.

As consumers, and as people who desire to make a difference in our communities, we need to be aware of the unstated motivations of corporations that ‘come on board’ with charitable activities.

Work Cited:

Man, Theresa L.M. (2006). Corporate Giving: A Tax Perspective. (Online Article: http://www.carters.ca/pub/article/charity/2007/tlm_corpgiving.pdf)

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  1. Shawn
    October 2, 2012 at 9:28 am

    I am not surprised that you were not given all of the information on how you can ‘Adopt a School’ at Indigo. It seems that few people (Indigo’s own it would seem as well…) are aware that you can purchase an E-Gift card for $25 and Indigo will donate a book to your ‘adopted’ school. Additionally, for no cost, anyone can ‘adopt’ any school – for every 50 people that ‘adopt’ a school – they will donate a book to that school.

    While Indigo may still be able to receive a tax break for their ‘giving’ – well … good for them, at least I am not ‘giving’ Indigo money to do so.

    People like you and I still need to approach and partner with our local school(s) to donate school books and supplies where needed. I think being involved directly will have a more lasting impact than the once a year ‘Adopt-a-School’ initiative.

    Great shout out in your article.

    Cheers

  2. October 22, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    Hi there,

    Thank you for taking the time to highlight the Indigo Adopt a School program. We appreciate your insight into the program and your experience in-store has given us some ideas for how we can continue to improve the program. I would like to address the store experience you described. You’re correct that our email stated that Indigo would donate a book to your school if you purchase an Indigo e-gift card. That part of the Adopt a School program is available only online, however, so store staff may not have been familiar with it. While we do make an effort to ensure store staff is fully aware of all program elements, there are times when this information may be unintentionally overlooked.

    As for allowing customers to donate a book to the school, I love the idea and we’ve explored how we can do that, but schools often prefer to select the titles that are most meaningful to their school. And as every school has different needs, we like to respect that freedom. By all means, if you have a school that you’d like to donate your gently used books to, please reach out to them. Our teachers are unsung heroes that deserve our support!

    And lastly, regarding the donations: The Indigo Adopt a School program is a cause marketing campaign so Indigo does not provide nor receive tax receipts for customer or corporate donations. Because we can provide a platform and an audience for this message, elementary schools across Canada are able to reach more people and campaign to receive money for new books. Thanks to our employees, customers, schools and their communities, this year more than 600 schools will receive over 50,000 books for their children. And that’s something we’re very proud of!

    Once again, thank you for taking the time to blog about the Adopt a School program. If you have more feedback you’d like to share, please feel free to contact us at Adoptaschool@indigo.ca.

    Jennifer, Indigo Love of Reading Foundation

  3. October 22, 2012 at 11:25 pm

    Thanks Jennifer for taking the time to write on my blog and to clarify.I think sometimes people and corporations need to use their position and networks to create good. And I’m pleasantly surprised to hear of what the program has accomplished – that is pretty awesome. I am going to provide a direct link to this comment on the top of this blog post (as soon as I figure out how!) as I think the clarifications add a redeeming quality.

    I’ve been finding in a lot of companies that the front line people don’t actually know about the ethical and charitable efforts – which is a real shame because even when I spoke to the manager, I wasn’t able to get an answer until blogging about it – not sure how you heard of my post – but I don’t think it should be this hard to get information if this program is truly and solely for the benefit of children in schools…. I am glad to hear that this feedback will be used.

    Still, corporate involvement generally have mixed motivations. I know people who quietly donate large amounts of money – both from their corporations and privately – they give of their excess or profits….and often don’t need a campaign. I would like to see more corporations do this…. instead, so many corporate involvement is not altruistic at heart, but a marketing ploy – and a good one too (increased spending, free marketing as everyone shares on facebook and other forms of social media and electronic messaging)! As I mention in my post, maybe this is the only way to get the public involved – 50,000 books for children is a pretty awesome feat! But I would be interested in knowing whether profits are increased through a charity campaign.

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