Don't Spoil a Good Cause with a Bad Come-on

Silhouettes of people walking in front of clocks

“Do you have time for gay rights?” a young woman asked me while on a recent outing in my neighborhood. The highly trafficked corner where she was standing is often lined with people in colored vests, like hers, poised to engage passersby in scripted fundraising pitches for deserving nonprofits.

The question was one I’d heard in various forms—just substitute gay rights with other worthy causes. I waited a beat, thinking about how to respond. I usually tell them that I understand they’ll ask for a monthly pledge, and while I appreciate, commend, (and if I do) support the work of their organization, I’m not going to sign up here or now.

“I don’t like the question,” I said this time, “it makes people wrong.” I tried to say it in a neutral tone as I know this is difficult work, for a good cause, and probably little pay. I also know she didn’t create the pitch, but fundraisers and marketers regularly use this type of emotional hook to move us to give or to buy. And, it works.

What troubles me is that come-ons such as these cause us to question whether we “do have time for gay rights, abused animals, victims of disasters,” and can plant seeds of doubt about our generosity or compassion. In the for-profit world, marketing messages that tell us we’re not good enough unless we buy a particular product have, for decades, planted seeds of doubt about our intrinsic worth.

This type of messaging is so ingrained that it’s easy to avoid countering it or the doubt it engenders. Is planting doubt in exchange for a high-minded mission worth it? Does this repeated questioning erode our individual and collective well-being?

These tactics are not new, nor limited to fundraising or direct sales. In the ‘80’s, while living in San Diego, I remember this alarming news tease: “Serial killer heads toward San Diego. Details at 11” that left me (and how many others in the city?) feeling worried and on edge.

On social media an oft-used technique is clickbaiting. While it’s fallen out of favor in some circles, the practice of luring readers with headlines that inflate stories and promise big—and often disappointing—payoffs is still present in our newsfeeds.

These practices may yield results—getting eyeballs on programming and ads, boosting social media engagement, increasing donations—but at what cost? It may be naïve to imagine that in the increasingly competitive world of content creation, a respectful, holistic, long view might win over one that simply boosts Key Performance Indicators (KPI), regardless of the impact on the audience. In a post on ethics and business, author and blogger Seth Godin recently asked, what if “being more ethical was the most important KPI? Perhaps profit and market share and the rest could merely be tools in service of the ability to make things better, to treat people ever more fairly, to do work that we're more proud of each day.”

As both contributors to the daily media cacophony and consumers of it, we can “vote” with our behavior. We can avoid taking the (click) bait. We can craft messages and campaigns that respect our online communities, donors, clients, and customers. We can practice living by the platinum rule, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”

And, what if we went one step further—what if we lived as if the words and images we create are actually sacred? What shape might our messages take? Perhaps that’s something that would really get our attention.

Roselle Kovitz, a member of Fetzer’s social media team, is a writer and communication consultant who lives in Seattle.