Is For-Profit the Future of Non-Profit?

The troubling allure of turning philanthropy into consumer activity
Lauren Bush Lauren with one of her FEED bags (AP)

Charity is for patsies. If you really care about making the world a better place, buy a trendy bag.

That was the logic Lauren Bush Lauren articulated in a 2013 interview about FEED, a for-profit entity she founded that creates simple, eco-friendly tote bags whose price covers the cost of donating school meals to children in Rwanda via the UN World Food Program. Her interviewer was Matthew Bishop, editor of The Economist and co-author of Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World, perhaps the most prominent advocate for nonprofits to adopt business strategy and technique to fulfill their missions. When Bishop asked why FEED was conceived of as a profit-for-donation enterprise rather than a more traditional charity, Bush Lauren said:

I don’t want to go around and beg people for money, I’d rather sell them a product…it can’t be just an emotional sell, people have to buy a product…that they’re proud of.

If you wear it right, the FEED bag can both literally and figuratively pat you on the back.

Bush Lauren’s rejection of charity in favor of a commodity exchange echoes comments by her counterparts at PRODUCT (RED), a marketing partnership that brands products by Apple, Gap, Starbucks and others as (RED) and donates a portion of those profits to the Global Fund to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis in Africa. Among the most prominent “cause-related marketing” initiatives, its president, Tamsin Smith proclaimed, “(RED) is not a charity. It is simply a business model.” Bobby Shriver, one of the co-founders, told the New York Times,

Gap…wanted to do a T-shirt and give us all the money. But, we want them to make money…We want people buying houses in the Hamptons based on this because, if that happens, this thing is sustainable.

According to Shriver and Bush Lauren, our convenience is the world’s benefit—and we shouldn't feel guilty about our materialism. Cause-branded marketing, in this argument, is far more effective at channeling money to fight disease and hunger than charity. People don’t donate as regularly and generously as they spend on shopping, and, with cause-branded marketing, the pitch sidesteps “begging” and “emotional appeal.” Instead, (RED) directs its energy towards stressing the ease with which consumers can engage. Shopping is woven into our everyday lives, so why not automate the process in a way that benefits consumers, corporations, and the world’s poorest and most ill?

This blunt pragmatism is hard to resist. In September 2011, a group of young idealists (and, counting myself, at least one journalist) gathered to strategize about how to create a better world and to examine the influence of corporations and the market on our society—but it wasn’t Occupy Wall Street. At the Next Gen: Charity conference, ten minutes away from Zucotti Park, keynote speaker and clothing mogul Mark Ecko proudly declared that “the future of non-profit is for-profit.” 

The biggest names in Silicon Valley seem to agree, with Pierre Omidyar, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Larry Ellison backing Not For Sale, an anti-human trafficking and anti-slavery organization currently developing for-profit products such as soup, denim jeans, and a phone that would theoretically produce ongoing revenue for their advocacy efforts. It’s unclear if the name is intentionally ironic. On the smaller-dollar end of the spectrum, the founder of Kickstarter claims that the crowd-funding platform “creates a relationship between consumer and merchant that is more like that of the one between donor and nonprofit.”

Presented by

Amy Schiller writes about politics, feminism, philanthropy, and pop culture. Her work has appeared in The NationSalonThe Daily Beast, and The American Prospect. Her website is amybessschiller.com.

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