Thursday, April 8, 2010

Online Philanthropy

In March, Pepsi announced their Pepsi Refresh Project, a philanthopic program designed to allow the public to vote on ideas that they would like Pepsi to give millions of dollars to each month. With a big kick off campaign featuring Kevin Bacon and Demi Moore as spokespeople and a huge advertising campaign it seemed like this was a first of its kind.

Online voting however, has not been reserved for merely American Idol. In fact, corporate philanthropy has been exploring online ways to engage the public for the past few years. Some companies are developing new ways of taking their philanthropy online that are helping create relationships with customers by involving them in their business in a very direct way.

One such company is American Express. American Express has long been at the forefront of creative marketing initiatives. Perhaps most famous for introducing cause-related marketing in the eighties, with a program that raised $1.7 million for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, American Express has a strong tradition of community involvement, contributing money through its Partners in Preservation Program that helps preserve sites and monuments that are essential to local and national identities all over.

This program, already so closely linked to communities and identity, was the ideal selection to take one step further into the world of social networking. So a couple of years ago, American Express did just that by incorporating the public directly into the project. At a press conference held in San Francisco, American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced that the San Francisco Bay Area would receive $1 million in preservation grants. The added twist - the public was invited to participate in the grant selection process via a dedicated website or at voting kiosks located at selected Peet’s Coffee and Tea outlets across the Bay Area. This was the first time that the public was directly involved in helping a company decide how to spend its philanthropic dollars. The sites that received the highest number of popular votes were guaranteed to receive funding. Since that time American Express added their Member's Project a program that encourages American Express Card holders to come up with ideas that can make a positive difference in the world.

Pepsi and American Express are just a couple of companies who are getting more active in online philanthropy. Companies are beginning to understand that to retain trust with customers they must engage them in a dialogue, a conversation that in some way taps into the public’s collective psyche and then incorporates the results of that conversation into action. Allowing customers to become active partners in the choices that a company is making about philanthropy is an ideal way to do this. The traditional model of communicating outward to an audience is no longer enough. It is the age of the consumer, so organizations need to listen, interact and respond.

Whether it’s giving money to preserve treasures in the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, or developing ideas to save the planet, surely helping companies better the world through online giving is at least as important as voting for the next American Idol.