Wednesday, August 17, 2011

When should a charity refuse a donation?

One of my students in this fall’s PR Major tweeted me last week with a suggestion for a blog topic.

Her link led me to Lindor Reynolds’ column in last Wednesday’s Winnipeg Free Press, “Hooters, cancer drive a bad business combo.”

In a nutshell (this is my summary, but click the link for the full story), Reynolds feels the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation shouldn’t accept donations from Hooters, and that doing so will turn supporters against it.

Monique Levesque-Pharoah, Development Officer for the CBCF’s Prairies/NWT Region and a friend of mine, clarified a number of points in Reynolds’ story for me. For example, while Reynolds' column suggests the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation approached Hooters looking to “team up,” in reality, Levesque-Pharoah says Hooters simply entered a team in the upcoming CIBC Run for the Cure, which benefits CBCF. The Hooters fundraising activities Reynolds discusses in her column are in support of the Hooters Run for the Cure team.

At any rate, regardless of how casual CBCF's involvement with Hooters actually is, this post is about Pamela’s question, and whether accepting a donation from Hooters (even if it’s just money raised by their team in the CIBC Run for the Cure) is “bad business” for CBCF.

My opinion

I dislike Hooters. I agree with Reynolds that Hooters encourages the objectification of women, and that that objectification does a disservice to women in general, not only breast cancer survivors and patients.  I hear Hooters serves excellent chicken wings, but I won’t eat there – it’s my personal choice.

I am also fortunate enough not to have suffered from or lost anyone close to me to breast cancer (yet). But that doesn’t stop me from being terrified of the disease, or appreciating any fundraising done to support the fight against it and all other fatal illnesses. I've been lucky, but millions of others haven't. And every penny counts.

Do I personally like Hooters? No. But if Hooters is going to be in business anyway, am I just as happy for some of its energies and resources to be spent fighting a disease that kills people every day? I don’t even have to think about it: of course.

But that’s just my opinion.

Whose opinion matters?

Lindor Reynolds predicts that “many” CBCF donors will feel “ill will” toward CBCF as a result of the Hooters donation. While some may find it distasteful that an organization that promotes such positive things for women accepts money from Hooters, I hope many would feel the way I do: we may not like Hooters, but we’ll take the money to fight breast cancer, thank you. I assume this is how CBCF predicted its donors would feel, too.

OK, this is still my opinion. Time will tell who's right, I suppose.

Know your audiences

In fundraising, like in all other areas of PR, there's always the chance someone will be unhappy with what you do. Sometimes that person will be a columnist whose opinion gets wide distribution, sometimes not. 

What matters most is how your audiences will see the issue.

Reynolds’ column accurately points out that fundraising professionals “walk a tightrope without a net.”  

In everything they do, they have to be creative enough to break through the noise of all the competing messages out there, and persuade us to give our donation money to their cause. 

While we don't think of charities being "in competition" with one another, in a way, they are. We only have so much money to give, and there are endless worthy causes. So the question of where "the line" between aggressive and offensive lies is important: they need to raise as much money as they can, but without doing anything that could risk donor support in the long term.

And it isn't just about whose donations to accept: everything charities do goes under the donor microscope. Is this the right celebrity spokesperson? Can we be sure he/she won't be involved in some embarrassing scandal next month? Is this marketing campaign too edgy? Will we draw the wrong kind of attention? These questions are discussed and debated in non-profits every day, as they try to find a way to capture our attention, and be compelling, and do the best fundraising job they can, without offending badly enough to lose our donation. 

To do that well, they need to know their audiences: both what makes them tick and what ticks them off.

I hope Lindor Reynolds is wrong, and that most current and potential CBCF donors see the organization’s efforts to raise money for what they are: an aggressive fight against an even more aggressive disease.

And that they open their wallets.

If you would like to make a donation to the CBCF, please click here.


  1. Hi Melanie,

    Great blog topic. I'm glad your student flagged the story. Like you, I'm not a big Hooters fan, but considering the number of women they employ, I think it shows good sense for them to support a charity like this. Especially in the form of a fundraising run team. I was even okay with the idea of a corporate donation. I believe CBCF does great work and has very high standards. I think if we get to a place where every business we disagree with is blocked from corporate donations, our charity funds would run dry. And I think it's mildly amusing when a journalist writes her editorial piece and doesn't think through the bigger picture - like every advertiser, company and male in general who has a fascination with those particular female assets. But then, this is all just my opinion. Thanks for posting.

  2. Hmmm... now, how did I know you'd see it that way?! ;) Thanks for commenting!

  3. My fear when I read this was that the CBCF was alienating their existing audience by engaging this new one. I think you're right though that audiences don't necessarily becoming alienated from organizations based on who they choose to target - especially charities. They will hopefully choose to give anyway, even if they don't agree with what Hooters stands for.

  4. I hope that too - though it's something NPs always have to balance. You'd be surprised by what offends people sometimes... the "irritant" can be far less obvious than Hooters. Remind me sometime to tell you about the outraged complaints we used to get about the covers of the phone book!