Kid Whitewashing a WallHow Companies and Charities “Colorwash”

Ever notice how every major cause today gets a color? Pink for breast cancer, green for the environment, red for AIDS–causes cover the rainbow and beyond. This kind of branding is effective, raising millions of dollars in the name of various organizations. Yet like most branding, the color codes have a great potential for abuse. With no clear standards for what counts as pink, green, or red products, fundraisers inevitably find themselves in conflict with donors because of miscommunications, and, in the case of the NFL, possibly doing more harm than good. Critics, inspired by the term whitewashing, have begun to color code dishonesty in the charity realm. Booster club members need to understand the whitewashing of national charitable causes, because it’s easy for booster clubs to stumble into the same untruthful and ineffective branding.

Whitewash /ˈ(h)wītˌwäSH/ (from the Oxford English Dictionary)

  • 1 (usually as adjective whitewashed) paint (a wall, building, or room) with whitewash:a suntrap surrounded by trees and whitewashed walls
  • deliberately attempt to conceal unpleasant or incriminating facts about (a person or organization): his wife must have wanted to whitewash his reputation

Pinkwashing, for example, refers to deceit in the breast cancer charity world. Examples range from selling cancer-causing products with pink packaging to advertising schemes that delude consumers into thinking that their purchases will help cure cancer. They often don’t help, once you read the fine print. Companies aren’t the only ones cashing in on cancer. A small number of cancer charities convince supporters that they are funding research, when in fact they are raising awareness and other things not related to actually curing a disease. It’s not necessarily bad work, but the fundraising isn’t transparent. All that is to say: whitewashing charitable causes is a well-studied phenomenon. But how could it play out in booster clubs?

Boosterwashing /ˈbo͞ostərwäSHiNG/.

  • The use of booster clubs to sell products or services without significantly and directly aiding an extracurricular program.

Benefiting Business: businesses can benefit from fundraisers directly through sales or indirectly through gaining new customers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. However, boosterwashing happens whenever clubs misrepresent their fundraising in a way that secretly benefits someone else’s interests or grossly understates those benefits. From wrapping paper tubes to mattress sales, booster clubs often resell things listing only the price. Without more information, supporters might think that the products were donated, and that all of the money goes to the club. It might seem obvious to us that the items are being marked up and resold, but it’s not obvious to them. It’s worth exploring ways to be open and transparent with supporters. After all, you don’t want to create buyers’ remorse by having them figure it out after the fact.

Reputation: you also don’t want to generate donation regrets by partnering with a bad company. It might sound obvious, but it’s easy to overlook these things in the perfect storm of disorganization, financial pressure, and corporate gloss. For example, avoid a restaurant night at a place where the food is horrible, a charity auction at the law office of a suspected swindler, or donations from a sports equipment retailer who expects to see that money used only in it’s store.

[Look back here next week for a detailed example of a boosterwashed fundraiser]

Margin: some programs have the very low margins, but are extremely honest. Escrip or Box Tops, for example, send only a narrow fraction of the what the supporter spent toward a school program. Yet it says so right there on the receipt and on the box. And unlike the cookie dough, or the dinner at a particular restaurant, participants are never required to purchase something they didn’t want in the first place.

Transparency: the opposite of boosterwashing is transparency, and transparency can help you rally your supporters. If community members truly knew the work and financial investment required for some fundraisers, they’d fund booster clubs more freely. For example, if a donor understands the low margins of wrapping paper sales, they might be more inclined to make a direct donation. If your club is ever criticized for inefficient fundraising, use it as a rallying cry for direct funding requests “help us avoid selling wrapping paper this Christmas, make a direct donation!”

Ask these questions of your fundraising activities to avoid boosterwashing:

  • How much do your donors think will directly support youth programs?
  • Does it promote your club in a positive and honest way?
  • Are the products or partners you’re associating with aligned with your values? Alcohol companies, for example, are ethically thorny sponsors.
  • Are the services or products of a high quality?
  • Is the business partner using the booster club’s endorsement, well after the end of the fundraiser?
  • Does the cost in volunteer time justify the potential fundraising? For example, we write in one of our posts about celebrity waiters, volunteers who wait tables and donate their tips. If the tips were meager, maybe they’d be better off working at another fundraiser.
  • Are supporters forced to purchase goods, with no clear way to provide direct donations?
  • Is there any way that an organization would profit from undermining your mission? For example, a sports booster could be sponsored by a development firm that’s trying to buy up local athletic fields to turn into condos.

In the larger corporate and mega-charity world, modern cause marketing overpromises, while institutions underdeliver. The value of causes’ brands–how much people care about them–is being extracted. Not only does the new funding source (shares of cause marketing products) die off, but the toxic publicity also poisons the donation base that the cause used to rely on. Booster club supporters also live in this climate, and are becoming more suspicious of all charitable requests. Yet booster clubs have significant advantages. Booster clubs build fundraising around personal relationships, not slogans. With transparency, a solid mission, and SMART goals, there’s no reason booster clubs can’t succeed.


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