Ethnography and philanthropy: giving is aspiring

Ethnography and Philanthropy
If we take as the assumption that “modern American philanthropy is a consumer marketplace”, then “what, in consumer marketing terms, causes consumers to act; specifically to buy (in commercial terms) or to give?”

This is the starting question in an article written by Tom Watson, publisher of the free onPhilanthropy web publication.

“Can ethnographers help to create the perfect cause? And if nonprofits want to adopt this increasingly important area of social science to mimic their corporate cousins to design campaigns and causes based what anthropologists tell us what are the implications for philanthropy?”

“Clearly, if nonprofits are chartered to serve the public good, the pure creation of products to appeal to consumer interest runs counter to our mission. Those of us raising funds for nonprofits do so because those organizations do worthy things, not because we need to increase marketshare (as worthy a goal as that clearly is for corporations). The role of the consumer anthropologist in philanthropy becomes clearer, I think, when you peer inside an organization’s ongoing fundraising and communications. Here, within the structure of raising and spending funds for a cause, experimentation has been going on for many decades. Any nonprofit involved in a serious direct marketing program must test new methods of attaining donors, almost by definition. At trade shows and conferences, I’ve seen plenty of really visionary fundraisers talk about envelopes, streaming video, clever giveaways, and a wide spectrum of rewards marketing. Even in major gifts at the top of the fundraising food chain good practitioners create “product” all the time: in the form of naming opportunities, events, giving circles and the like.”

“What every good fundraiser has to realize is that the particular consumer marketplace that philanthropy inhabits is almost entirely aspirational.”

“When we make the decision to give, it is based on a relatively simple checklist of smaller decisions all of which have to do with how we see ourselves in the world. Brand managers in the consumer world have long understood this. Remember the phrase, “you are what you drive?” You can apply it to what you eat, where you live, what you wear, watch or listen to and how you give.”

“When we make a gift, it is less transactional certainly than a purchase. The desire to fund change, to help the poor, to better society is real and it goes beyond the purely commercial. But we also aspire as we give.”

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