Schoolyard brawl at Amex Members Project

A recent e-mail from DonorsChoose.org complains that a partnership between Proctor & Gamble and UNICEF has an unfair advantage in the American Express Members Project, through which AmEx cardholders will choose a charity to receive $5 million of the corporation’s money.  (Full disclosure: the Nonprofiteer chairs the Speakers’ Bureau for the Midwest Chapter of the US Fund for UNICEF, though she was unaware of the UNICEF/P&G collaboration and doesn’t carry an AmEx card and therefore can’t vote in the contest.) 

DonorsChoose, which itself is awash in corporate support and the marketing muscle attendant thereon, objects that the description of the UNICEF aid idea on the Members Project Website doesn’t reveal the connection between a specific P&G product (the PUR water filter) and the proposal, nor P&G’s efforts to rally its employees to vote for the proposal on the Website.  (In fact, though, there’s a link–albeit broken–on the Members Project Website directly to the P&G Sciences safe-water page; here’s the working link; and while UNICEF certainly uses plenty of water filtration systems, it purchases them based on competitive bids rather than corporate marketing alliances.)

Of course any charity would be annoyed by what appears to be ballot-box stuffing, and perhaps the Nonprofiteer’s so-what attitude is the heritage of her years seeing Chicago politics up close.  And there’s every reason to think Donors Choose is a worthy recipient of support, as much as or perhaps more than UNICEF–though an argument framed in those terms ("Which charity to benefit the poor is more entitled to crumbs from the table of the wealthy?") is a terrific example of "Let’s you and him fight". 

But there seems to be a case of selective outrage here: Donors Choose is fine with the way Crate & Barrel purchases customer loyalty through its exclusive right within the furniture industry to distribute Donors Choose gift certificates, but objects to P&G’s support for a program that might use one of its products someday.  Honestly, it’s hard to imagine that $5 million means enough to a corporation with net sales of $68 billion for it to have a commercial motive for its over-zealous efforts; most likely the company, like Donors Choose and its corporate supporters, simply wants to win on behalf of the people it serves.  And an organization which, when Googled, produces a list of mentions in the nation’s top media outlets is hardly in a position to compare itself in the New York Times to David in his battle with Goliath.

People worried that the Members Project system of American Idol-style voting will shortchange their favorite charity should just skip the whole thing and write a check directly to whichever project they’re concerned about.  (Sorry about the dangling participle, but charity pissing matches are something up with which I will not put.)

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6 Responses to “Schoolyard brawl at Amex Members Project”

  1. BB Says:

    SURELY you must realize there is a significant difference here between DC’s partnership with C&B to distribute gift certificates to their customers and a P&G employee posting a project to distribute a P&G product and having P&G employees turn out en masse to usher it to victory??

    Whether or not UNICEF does go through a competitive bidding for their water filtration products, I do not know. What I do know is that the project detailed on AMEX’s Members Project page clearly refers to ONE specific solution that cardmembers are meant to vote for, that being the PUR product that the project sponsor himself acknowledged in the NY Times that he would have named if not for AMEX contest rules.

    On the topic of marketing muscle: I have watched firsthand the DonorsChoose efforts over recent weeks getting ready to make a run for the AMEX prize money. They have called on favor capital from their most important and influential donors, they have taxed their board, they have blasted their donor network risking “donor fatigue” and they themselves have worked around the clock seven days a week. They are fortunate to have a lot of great, well earned support out there. They do NOT have a company with over 100,000 employees to rally behind their cause. There IS a difference. To discover in the final round of voting that the playing field is less than level, that one participant probably is not even technically qualified to compete and certainly is not completely transparent in its program design and mission, and to be met with complete dismissal from American Express over the matter had been crushing.

    At the end of the day, the hard working people at non profit organizations are not really rewarded financially for their efforts. I get a big bonus if I make my goals at work, they get the satisfaction of knowing that their mission is being furthered and that people’s lives are being improved. They work with limited resources.

    For this challenge, DonorsChoose decided to put it all on the line and go for broke in the Members Project. It did seem an attainable goal, and the money plus the prestige and marketing opportunities with American Express would have been transformative, as they approach their next enormous undertaking, their Fall opening to every public school around the country.

    So I think they’re entitled to their rallying cry, to be heard, for if AMEX is going to ignore the signs of impropriety in their contest then why not take to the streets? It would be a disservice to the hardworking staffers at DC and to the many thousands who have turned out to support them in this effort to let this go unheard.

  2. zach Says:

    P&G has 138,000 employees.

    UNICEF has 7,200.

    DonorsChoose has 40.

    P&G had $68 BILLION in revenue last year.

    UNICEF had $2.8 BILLION.

    DonorsChoose had $7 million.

    How can you dispute the David v. Goliath analogy with those numbers?

    Secondly, I’d like to see quotes from the email where you say DonorsChoose is “complaining.” I’ve received emails from them urging me to vote & mentioning the P&G connection but I would hardly call it complaining.

  3. zach Says:

    Here’s the text of the email I received from Donors Choose, fyi. I don’t see much “complaining”:

    Dear Zach,

    DonorsChoose.org just made the Top 5 finals of the American Express Members Project. The project edging us out for the #1 spot is a real Goliath, as you can see from this New York Times article:

    “Procter & Gamble is traveling incognito in the American Express Member’s Project…[P&G employee] Mr. Allgood entered the science and theory behind the Children’s Safe Drinking Water program. But he said that the Member Project’s rules precluded him from naming it, or mentioning Pur or Procter.” (NYT, July 24, 2007)

    That’s not going to stop us!

    If you voted last week, it will only take you 30 seconds to vote this time. If it’s your first time voting, 2 minutes is needed. Please vote now for our submission:

    Teachers Ask. You Choose. Students Learn.
    http://www.membersproject.com/Education/5630

    If we win, all the award proceeds—up to $5 million—will go to classroom projects on our site. Hundreds of thousands of public school students stand to benefit.

    We’re in the final homestretch, and the outcome will likely be decided by fewer than a hundred votes. Your vote now is essential.

    On behalf of all the schoolchildren whom your vote will impact, thank you for helping at this critical moment!

    Sincerely,
    Charles Best

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Here’s an excerpt from the e-mail that I described as “complaining”:

    “You’ll see the details in the email below, but suffice it
    to say that we (along with the other 3 finalists) have been crushed in
    the voting process for the finals. There is no chance of competing on a
    level playing field for the final prize unless supporters decide they
    won’t stand by for an attempt by P&G that the New York Times identified
    as “incognito”.

    I’m only sending this message to people who I know will understand how
    frustrating this for-profit “hijacking” is for me and for DonorsChoose.

    If you know anyone who might be willing to vote as a way to let their
    voice be heard, feel free to send them the email below. It can make a
    difference. The chances of any finalist beating the odds against P&G’s
    effort are daunting, but DonorsChoose still believes that it’s important
    to try on behalf of thousands of students and teachers that deserve a
    chance in spite of unlimited for-profit resources aligned towards a
    different objective.”

    There’s nothing wrong with complaining; I just don’t think the issue is as clearcut as Donors Choose and its supporters do. P&G has no more of a profit motive than any of the corporate supporters of Donors Choose. The fact that UNICEF has more employees and a bigger budget than Donors Choose is just a fact of life, not a tilting of the playing field; and the fact that UNICEF’s corporate supporters are larger than those of Donors Choose likewise.

    If there’s been some messing about with the AmEx rules, that’s a matter for AmEx to decide; I’d certainly be glad to publicize any findings of wrongdoing. But my point remains the same: rather than squabble over crumbs from the corporate table, donors should support charities directly. I realize that doesn’t provide Donors Choose with $5 million (though it could do a “replace-the-AmEx” campaign that would probably draw lots of press attention and money), but I don’t think anyone is per se entitled to a contest prize.

  5. Ennis Says:

    What bothers me is the fact that it looks like P&G is using the contest as a way to get free advertising and goodwill for their US PUR product launch, which was last week.

    You’re making the claim that
    Crate & Barrel : Donors Choice
    as
    P&G: Children’s Safe Drinking Water Project
    but that’s not true.

    The Member’s Project listing for the Children’s Safe Drinking Water Project is virtually an advertisement for the PUR product that was just launched in America. I care a lot about safe drinking water in the third world, but what they show is just that one single product and that’s all.

    It really does feel like P&G are using subterfuge to take advantage of the contest, it leaves a poor taste in my mouth. If they had maintained more of a distance I might not have felt this way, but the association is simply too close and it makes me uneasy.

  6. Nonprofiteer Says:

    I’m actually saying that Crate and Barrel is to Donors Choice as P&G is to UNICEF. This is hardly the first safe drinking water initiative from UNICEF–in fact, safe water has been at the center of its disease-prevention strategy worldwide since the 1940s. And UNICEF has not committed to use the P&G product. If, however, the description of the project seems to sound a bit too much like a PUR ad, it is a shame–an example of product placement leeching from movies and tv to the charity world.

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