Is AmEx's Members Project a worthy avenue for charity?

Advice on how to make the world better.
June 16 2010 9:38 AM

Credit Where It's Due

Is it possible to use a charge card to do good and reap rewards?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to Ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

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In the course of that campaign, American Express executive vice president for worldwide marketing Jerry Welsh coined the term cause-related marketing.

"CRM is not philanthropy," Welsh said in an interview last year, "it's rather marketing through an artful association with a charitable cause."  The artful association is an attractive strategy for tough economic times as consumers become more careful in their spending and more conscious of the effects of their consumption. There's even an organized Cause Marketing Forum that gives prizes. I particularly like the 2009 Golden Halo Award winner for best environmental campaign—the New Belgium Brewing Company's "Tour de Fat," a bike festival. Another Golden Halo winner was the National Basketball Association's "Send a Net. Save a Life. See a Game," offering free basketball tickets for a $10 donation to buy anti-malaria bed nets.

There has been some negative reaction to businesses linking with charities, including a thoughtful article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by University of Nebraska public administration professor Angela M. Eikenberry about what she calls consumption philanthropy. Eikenberry says it's too easy, trivializes the causes, and isn't really generous. (There is, by the way, a cause marketing group operating with the name Selfish Giving.)

Andrew Benett, CEO of the advertising firm Arnold Worldwide and author of the forthcoming book Consumed, believes customers are tired of "charity labels slapped on every product." A better trend, he thinks, is supporting companies whose business interests align with strategic philanthropy.  He points to Starbucks using fair trade coffee, or companies giving back to communities where their employees live: "I'd like to see more transparency. I'd like to know that they're doing the good they're doing because it's good for business."

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So, Cleo, I'd take a look at the Members Project Web site and see if it works as a way for you to send more positive attention and donations to the charity you care about. Finally, generosity doesn't necessarily mean being altruistic. If your points for volunteer hours and charitable donations add up to a week in Paris, I don't think anyone will suffer.

—Constance

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to Ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

Constance Casey is a former New York City Department of Parks gardener and writes the monthly "Species" column for Landscape Architecture Magazine.