Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Publicity in Exchange for Donations - The Etiquette of Charitable Giving

As the holidays approach, we Canadians will be confronted with many opportunities to give - that is after all what the season is all about - despite its more prevalent consumer aspect already taking shape in Christmas displays at a mall near you. Perhaps we will show some kindness to a homeless person who we're usually to busy to see. Maybe we'll drop off some gifts at a toy drive or volunteer at a food bank. Or, if we have the means, we might make a $10,000 donation to a local radio station's fundraising marathon.

It could be said that charity - of the financial or symbolic kind - is the embodiment of etiquette - a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. In fact, it's difficult to find fault with the actual giving of oneself, whether that takes the form of a cheque or a gift of time. And yet, the whole notion of philanthropy is fraught with etiquette landmines. Once someone has donated to your cause, how long do you wait before asking again? Is it appropriate to ask colleagues to buy raffle tickets or chocolate bars to help raise money for their kids school, ballet group or hockey team? Do people have the right to demand things like building naming rights in exchange for gifts of money?

Of all the questions surrounding charity etiquette and ethics, I find this last one the most troubling. My personal belief is that all charity should be anonymous and while I won't go so far as to say that charity with publicity is no longer charity, I do wonder about the motivation behind it. I believe this is also a tenet of some of the world's religions, although many people who participate actively in these organizations don't seem to subscribe to it.

I'm not suggesting that philanthropy has to go undercover and consist of shadowy figures passing envelopes in dark alleys. I'm just saying that, it seems more in line with the spirit of giving if there is no expectation that anyone, short of the benefactor, will ever find out that you have given a donation, or the specific details of said donation. I still occasionally hear about anonymous benefactors making large bequests but the notion seems to have fallen away from our culture. Here in Toronto, if I walk on University Avenue from Queen to Bloor, I see many buildings - mostly hospitals and cultural institutions - emblazoned with the names of the donors who financed their construction. I suppose if a hospital needs a new cancer wing, then a gift with naming rights attached is better than no gift at all. And while I'm quite positive that the people whose names are on these buildings feel passionately about the cause and had the best of intentions, something seems off about the lengths they went to in ensuring that everyone in town would know what they did.

Many unsung heroes engage in simple acts of charity every day - showing compassion to a stranger, giving an employee time off with pay if they're going through a hard time, loaning money to a friend with no strings attached. No news release will be issued to celebrate these acts but, in terms of what makes us a civilized society, they are no less important than large cheques presented at gala affairs amid much fanfare and publicity.

Clearly, I have a strong opinion on this topic but I'd love to hear your thoughts, especially if you disagree.


  1. I used to have a similar opinion regarding corporations patting themselves on the back for their good deeds. The public awareness raising seemed too self-serving. Now I see it as a necessary part of good corporate citizenry. Necessary because corporate generosity should do a couple things: help worthy causes and tie into business communications strategies. And since consumers increasingly reward good corporate citizens, especially during the pessimistic times, few businesses will donate without recognition.

  2. Hi Trevor,

    I actually don't have a problem with corporations putting their names on buildings or promoting their charitable efforts because I see it as part of the marketing or CSR plan. My beef is with individuals who splash their names (full names, including initials, etc.) on the sides of buildings. But maybe that's just me.