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.

Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone.
Geoffrey Canada

Dear My Goodness, A fabulous American Express ad series ran during the Academy Awards this year—with great music and visuals—about donating and volunteering through American Express. The most inspiring ad, to me, featured Geoffrey Canada, the Harlem Children's Zone founder, urging us to join the American Express Members Project to do good.

So here's my question: What is the advantage of doing my charitable giving or volunteering via American Express? Why not contact the charity of my choice on my own?

—Cleo in St. Louis

Dear Cleo,
There's no question that the Members Project is good for American Express. There's also no question that it will bring new donors to worthy and carefully vetted charities like the Harlem Children's Zone. And there's no question that some cardholders will be inspired to donate not just by the impressive TV and magazine ads, but because American Express will reward donations and volunteering with points redeemable for plane tickets, hotels, and a cornucopia of products. The main ways to get involved are to register online and vote for a favorite charity to get funding from American Express, to volunteer for an AmEx-approved cause, or to donate to an approved cause. (You don't have to be a cardholder to participate, but you do have to register.)

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The financial services company, with assets of more than $100 billion, wishes to fold you into its family—a family of generous people who'd like to improve the world. When we first see Geoffrey Canada on-screen, he's identified as "Cardmember since 1996." The ad's final message is: "Take charge of making a difference."

The company benefits and the charities benefit, but I was unable to gather from Nancy Smith, the American Express vice president for global media, content, and community in charge of the project, an answer to your question: What's the advantage for the individual participant? In our telephone interview, she returned to the good feeling of being part of a movement, and to the financial rewards. She also stressed how much easier it is to give using the card.

But how hard is it to write a check to a charity you like?

Smith declined to say how many people had registered since the project's March rollout, but AmEx says it will dole out $1.2 million to six charities  in the first round of Members Project grants. Speaking pleasantly in the language of corporate press releases, Smith described the program thus: "We're looking for different ways in this world to empower success. We're giving back, being a good citizen. It's part of our brand."

The goal for American Express is that, next time you charge something, you pull out your AmEx card rather than your Visa, MasterCard, or Discover card. Better yet, if you're not a cardholder, they'd like you to become one.

They know this can work. Back in 1983 after a campaign in which a penny for each use of the American Express card and $1 for each new card issued went to restoring the Statue of Liberty, transaction activity went up 28 percent in the first month of the campaign and there was a 45 percent jump in the number of new card applicants. (The campaign raised $1.7 million toward Lady Liberty's $62 million fix-up.)

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."

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.

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