Questioning charity: Does the end justify the means?

If you are well known and well off, the public expects you to make time to help out. And then the media and non-fans will start to take you apart. Photo: everymothercounts.org

WASHINGTON, July 26, 2011 — It’s natural to want to help, to give back.

Human beings are, as a rule, incredibly giving. This is even truer when people reach a level of prominence or celebrity. In fact, if you are well known and well off, the public almost expects you to make time to help out.

Recently two projects, one by a blogger and one by a Hollywood celebrity, became celebrated examples of giving back. But both attracted detractors, as well.

Dooce, aka Heather Armstrong, launched a project that sent the Internet abuzz. Dooce is one of the biggest bloggers around, and she has turned her blog into a successful business. Recently, she joined with the charity ‘Every Mother Counts’ to promote women’s health in impoverished areas. Dooce’s site receives over 1.3 million hits per month, according to TrafficEstimate.com. Can you imagine having your message in front of 1.3 million people?

Dooce traveled to Bangladesh to visit the women helped by the charity and to see to first hand some of the issues women face in impoverished countries in getting access to health care. Any charity would love access to the 1.3 million followers.

The second project belongs to Random Acts, a charity founded by actor Misha Collins. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of him; his star status is due to this role as Castiel on the popular CW show Supernatural. Mr. Collins has a ‘devoted fan base.’

Actor Misha Collins as "Castiel" in CW&squot;s Supernatural

Actor Misha Collins as “Castiel” in CW’s Supernatural

 

Recently, Random Acts took a group to Haiti to help build a children’s center in Jacamel. However, it wasn’t just a random selection of people who went: The group was comprised of people who had each managed to raise $5,000 or more. This approach served two goals: to raise funds for the organization, and to form a team to work in Haiti at the children’s center.

By those measures, the trip was a success.

Why are these two projects highlighted? These two trips played out on the web, in front of millions of people. Everything from the awareness-raising to fund raising to even the trip chronicles took place almost exclusively online. The project organizers took this approach deliberately in an effort to raise the profile of the charities that sponsored the aid missions.

In this aspect, each was a rousing success.

However, this online access attracted the notice of cynics to both efforts. Critics accused both Dooce and Collins of promoting “poverty tourism” and racism. They said the trips were condescending and worthless. This is harsh criticism in private, more so online where everyone can see it. Despite such cringe-inducing critiques, non-profits need exposure – the kind of exposure famous people can bring.

In an age where non-profits fight for every dollar, it is common practice for charitable organizations to reach out to celebrities – both traditional celebrities and the new celebrities of the Information Age. Celebrities have large voices that can help raise an organization’s visibility.

Every day and all over the world, hundreds of millions of people need help. Social Media have made brands, both large and small, rethink their marketing strategies and attempt to really engage the consumer. Why not apply this to humanitarian aid efforts?

Why should non-profits be any different?

Dooce’s post about her trip certainly raises brand awareness, and the hope is that this will translate into valuable donations to the organization. Collins’ Random Acts is an attempt to organize a fandom that existed merely to follow his career into an force that can do real good in the world.

Though there are differences between these projects, both attract the same kind of criticism. The two projects have taken different approaches in dealing with the critics. Dooce faced the critics head on, defending not only her actions but those of the charity. Random Acts, featured yesterday in an AOL article, has ignored the critics. Each tactic brings its own perils and rewards, but both charities push on.

It’s incredibly easy to criticize People and organizations on the internet. This is all the more true when culture and race sensitivities are put into the mix. The latest melee over charities and social media engagement may make some non-profits shy away from this type of activity. This is the last thing that they should do. On the web is where your supporters are, and where some of your strongest advocates exert real influence.  Turning engagement into support is a long-term job, one that will have its share of Internet opponents, but the Internet is full of humans – and humans want to help.

For more on how to use social media for non-profits, refer to this article.

 


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Amy Phillips

A former military wife armed with a political science degree and an abundance of opinion. By day, I am SharePoint developer for a large Management Consulting firm. By night, I am blogger, social media junkie, and stressed out single parent. I believe in seeing the humor in any situation and if no humor can be found, then a heavy dose of sarcasm will have to do. 

In addition, I chair the Social Media Club for the Baltimore area. In this capacity, I work with some of the most influential media people in Baltimore and bring social media practitioners together in a productive setting.

I am also the creative force behind Blogger Body Calendar 2011 and the operator of a boutique communications firm Social Pollen – focusing on Blogger PR, content writing, and social media management. 

Contact Amy Phillips

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