Generosity and community service: Can you exploit it?

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I'm a member of Robert Merkley's MSL "Brick Peddlers" team, the largest in the initiative.
Merkley bbq
Robert Merkley has over several years allocated significant financial resources to support The Ride in support of cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital. He didn’t issue news releases or hire PR people to seek publicity for his community support — so he receives the recognition here, freely, and without expectation of return.

Last week, a public relations representative working on behalf of a company within one of our US regional markets sent me the following note. (I’ve removed specifically identifiable details in line with my policy not to negatively identify individuals or organizations in this blog.)

My name is Nina from (deleted) Consulting Group. We sent an email early last week with a press release and photos on the (name of contractor removed)  breast cancer awareness “(name)” event to really channel the celebration of women, and help support women financially who are diagnosed with breast cancer but lack insurance.  

I’ve looked into your work on construction marketing, and I feel that charitable contributions and partnering with charities is an often overlooked way to show your customers what you care about. The CEO of (company and individual’s name) has supported numerous causes over the past couple of years, many dear to his heart, and he infuses this passion into the business and make charity a very outspoken part of their marketing. I can set up a one and one with him if you think this is something of interest to you and your audience.

After trying to calm down a bit, but not totally successfully, here is how I answered the PR person:

Nina, you are doing your job well, and frankly, genuine charitable support should not correlate with publicity-seeking intent (unless you want to pay for it with advertising, just like your client is paying for it with pr services.)

If it is sincere and valid generosity, the recognition should arise both from the shared participation within the community and the relevant organizations benefiting from the charity. 

If a pr/marketing person pitches this sort of story, my reaction is: “You are doing it not for community good but to be recognized for doing good in the community.” That is advertising, and I’ll be happy to refer you to Brooke who handles that side of the business. (And respecting our business obligations, we are always generous with publicity support for our advertisers.)

There is a paradox in community service and charity, in my opinion, in the more reward you expect (other than internal personal satisfaction in contributing) the less you receive. It is a hard concept to get around if you are into bean counting and measuring because the rewards, almost magically, turn out to be inverse to the benefit you expect to receive when you extend the generosity.

In practice, I see this every day and the best and closest example relates to long-time Ottawa advertiser Robert Merkley of Merkley Supply Ltd, who has helped initiate and lead a cancer research fund-raising initiative for the local hospital. This community support, as far as I can tell, only had close personal relevance this year when his wife was diagnosed with cancer — but that is after the fund-raising collected about $10 million in research funds. He has spent significant time, personal cash, and spiritual and emotional energy in the fund-raising project over the past five years, and never sought personal recognition or glory. Has he received it? Of course — and that is reflected in small way in my recognition here.

As another example, we have an advertiser who is celebrating the business’s 25th anniversary, and wished to share the news (as a small part) of an extensive advertiser supported supplement news about the company’s community contributions. While this may be seen as blowing its own horn, there are a couple of differences from the example with which I started this posting. First, as far as I can tell, the charity and good deeds come from the company’s general policy to support its employees and their diverse community interests, and second, the publicity we are providing is a small part of an overall paid advertising feature (and as I noted above, we’ll always treat our paying customers well.)

And there is an interesting irony and observation here about how we obtained the paid advertising supplement with this contractor. I serve on a voluntary industry association marketing committee with this  contractor’s communications and marketing officer. Neither of us expect direct reward for our own businesses through this community/association service. However, healthy relationships through community service in this case, obviously, have resulted in bottom-line business for us.

Conclusion: Be generous. Be sincere. But if you do this sort of work with the expectation of reward, you’ll likely be disappointed. The rewards from genuine community and charitable support arise when you least expect them.

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