Steve Nelson: Tapping Into Altruism Can Be Lucrative

Altruistic: unselfishly concerned for the well being of others.

This definition accompanied an unsolicited email I recently received from Michael Barrett, a founder of a company called Altruistic Apps. He also identified himself as the founder of an anti-bullying program, Hero in the Hallway.

Altruistic Apps promises to “revolutionize fundraising for schools like yours” with its “School Supporter” smartphone app. With this app, 50 percent of the fee a business pays to be listed goes directly to “participating schools like yours.” The app is then promoted to a school’s students and their parents who, if they load the app on their phones, “can access various offers and coupons.”

This is an entrepreneur’s notion of altruism: Promise a “re-occurring revenue stream” so that a generation of students might be exposed to more commercial advertising. How very unselfish. I looked into Barrett’s Hero in the Hallway program, too. The website is essentially an online store for Hero in the Hallway products. It is not coincidental that Altruistic Apps and Hero in the Hallway are dot.com organizations. They are incorporated for profit, not altruism. They exploit the erosion of school funding and the tragedy of bullying for profit.

This scheme is the 21st century iteration of the “cause-related marketing” frenzy of the ’80s and ’90s. As a leader of several nonprofit organizations, I was bombarded with offers of affinity credit cards, special phone services and other programs that sought access to all of the institution’s constituents. Just as with Altruistic Apps, the intent was anything but charitable. Cause-related marketing programs offer small — very small — kickbacks for institutions. For the credit card or phone vendors, it is cheap marketing to desirable audiences, using the false promise of “significant charity” to lure new customers. Such programs may not be illegal, but they are ethically questionable.

Slick salesmen are not just a contemporary phenomenon. But exploitation of children, or the people who care about children, is increasing dramatically.

Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s, once observed, “If you have $1 to spend on marketing, spend it on kids.” He inspired a generation of marketers and helped create a generation of sick children. According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, HappyMeal.com is a top online destination for young children. McDonald’s and other junk food corporations are creating virtual addicts — or “lifelong customers,” as they prefer to call them.

McDonald’s doesn’t just market to children. It also exploits them for profit. A program called McTeach-er’s night is one example. At these events, teachers serve as free labor for McDonald’s, serving food to parents and others, claiming that it is a charitable program raising money for schools. Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood reports that the “charity” returns about $1 per child to the school, while McDonald’s increases market share and lures more children and families into unhealthy eating.

The Ronald McDonald House program, which bathes McDonald’s in a charitable light, is hardly a charitable enterprise. McDonald’s funds about 10 percent of the program, and customers pay for the other 90 percent. McDonald’s loves the association with charity for its “brand,” but this hardly qualifies as altruism. This is among the many ways charity is used as a lure to draw more people to unhealthy products. McDonald’s actual charitable giving is 33 percent below the corporate average. It spends $25 in advertising for every $1 it gives to help others.

We Americans have long confused charity with justice. Over many decades the social contract has largely been abandoned for “a thousand points of light,” as George H.W. Bush termed his solution to poverty and misery. The claims he made in 1988 have been discredited by the steady increase in poverty and misery ever since. The thousand points of light have become a thousand flames to which naïve Americans are drawn in the name of charity, but in the service of profit.

But the programs I cite are a new low. It is shameful to manipulate parents by using their love for children to line the pockets of the wealthy. In each of these instances, ordinary Americans are hoodwinked into believing they are spending their hard-earned money for something beneficial, when they are really just feeding the insatiable greed of corporate America.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.