Being Charitable

On Friday morning I heard on the news about this new program being considered by big companies to help clothe the homeles. The idea behind it is that companies will outfit the homeless with warm winter jackets to wear in cold weather. The trade off? The jackets will have ads on the back, advertising the company’s ‘social responsibility’.

When I first heard the story I was unsettled by it and instinctively knew that it was just… wrong. While talking to Tay about it last night, he was able to verbalize exactly what the problem was – that these companies are taking the homeless and turning them into billboards.

I’m sure some people could argue that in the proposed situation, everybody wins – the companies get the recognition they deserve and the homeless stay warm.

But here’s the thing. Why do the companies need to splash their names across the back of the coats? Why does there have to be a trade off? Why not just give the homeless coats without the advertising? I’ve heard it said before that if you do a good deed but then tell other people about your good deed it basically cancels it out. Because then you’re not just doing it selflessly and out of the kindness of your heart, but you’re doing it so that other people know that you’ve done it and then you feel good about yourself (I’m ashamed to admit I’ve done it myself).

Companies advertising on homeless people is no different.

Businesses are under a lot of pressure in today’s world to be more socially responsibile. In many cases, when companies are bidding on corporate contracts, one of the criteria is for them is to demonstrate how they are socially responsible and supportive of charitable organizations. (If I ever go back to working for a corporation rather than non-profit, one of my ‘interview’ questions will be in regards to what way is X company socially responsible and what charities do they support on an annual basis). A lot of companies will donate to charities either through sponsorships for events, in-kind donations or straight donationes. Some bigger corporations are creating giving programs like foundations and grants. Or they’ve established a volunteer program where they encourage staff to volunteer with a charity and at the completion of a specified number of hours, the corporation will donate a specified amount to that employee’s charity. For example, if an RBC employee volunteers 40 hours at their charity of choice, then RBC will donate $500 to that charity. In most cases, the recognition that the company will receive will come in the form of a mention in the charity’s annual report. And for a lot of companies, that’s thanks enough.

But branding the homeless and calling it ‘being charitable’?

It’s just wrong.

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