Corporate altruism: Oxymoron or get-real solution?

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Should a company's charity work be overshadowed by obvious PR gains?
Should a company's charity work be overshadowed by obvious PR gains?

Related tags: Malnutrition, World food programme

Writing up an article on Kellogg’s World Food Day initiative yesterday, that age old question seemed to buzz through: is there really such a thing as a selfless good deed? And what about, dare we ask, on a corporate level?

Take this Kellogg case as just one example. To tie the company’s Breakfast for a Better Day initiative into World Food Day​, Kellogg released a kind of promotional video of its on-going philanthropic efforts. For each “like” or share the video gets, the company donates one serving of food.

It’s a nice idea in an age when social media campaigns have become a sort of synonym for “awareness”. (Remember when we all solved that tricky Africa problem by “liking” that KONY video​?) Yet some might ask why such a big company – which reported full year net sales at $14.2bn in 2012 – needs an excuse like this to make charitable donations. Shouldn’t industry giants be doing this kind of thing anyway?

“Kellogg donates food throughout the year to the hunger relief organizations and food bank associations in each of our regions around the world. Last year, Kellogg donated more than $39 million in food,”​ the company responded, making reference also to other great initiatives it pours resources into each year.

Cynics in the audience might ask what Kellogg stands to gain from such a sizable pledge, besides that warm fuzzy feeling inside. But then, what does anyone stand to gain from doing something nice? And if they do gain something, does that really detract from the final result?

There is a problem of world hunger- the World Food Programme estimates that there are 842 million people ​in the world today who do not have enough to eat, with poor nutrition causing 45% of deaths in children under five, totalling 3.1 million children each year. So while Kellogg’s donations are not an ultimate solution, and while some might suggest some of the sugary cereals in the company’s portfolio aren’t an appropriate donation to make to individuals at risk of malnutrition, it is at least offering some form of assistance in tackling this irrefutable problem.

So does it matter if, at the same time as offering that food, it gains a little good PR for the trouble? Does it matter that people walk down the cereal aisle in Tesco and think as they see that friendly red writing that this is the kind of company that does nice things? The kind of brand that you should start your day with because – like you with your Peugeot Estate and 2.4 children – it has good, solid values.

Following a psychological egoism line of thought, humans are always motivated by self-interest, and even in our acts of altruism we are driven by the possibility of benefiting in some direct or indirect way. Following a rational egoism line of thought, this is the only logical way to act.

I find this view too depressing to handle on a personal, individual level but on a corporate scale it seems logical. A business is not the same as an NGO or a public service (let’s steer clear of public service privatisation and outsourcing arguments for now). Its purpose is to make money, to advance and to expand. It is in itself a representation of the human competitive spirit - it wants to be the best by definition of income, territory and reputation.

With this in mind, everything that is done by a company must be with the aim of improving its competitive edge: to develop newer, better products, to be present in more countries and regarded by its cash flashing consumers in a better light than its competitors. Yet just because an act directly or indirectly leads to profit, it does not mean the act itself is diminished. The results are the same whatever the motivations, but as either journalist or consumer I think it is important to remain lucid in our part played in the corporate PR game.

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1 comment

Doing right by people

Posted by Dr Keryn Johnson,

I think it essential that we focus on people, society, environment over that of profits otherwise humanity will not last long in a competitive landscape. The only to do this is to develop synergistic relationships and this is only possible when the focus is not $.

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