Will corporate partnerships corrupt nonprofits?

Our School of Journalism at Kent State doesn’t have a famous name like Newhouse or Scripps. And we probably won’t any time soon, given the financial state of the news business.

But let’s say, just for fun, that Rupert Murdoch offers Kent State $10 million to endow “The Fox News School of Journalism…fairness, balance, accuracy, truth.”

Do we take the money and put that slogan above the door? After all, Murdoch and Fox have violated every tenet of journalism we embrace here, including all 4 words in the proposed tagline. Even if the money comes with no strings attached, what would the new “brand” do to our reputation?

When PR = Partner Relationships

An online discussion these past few weeks raises ethical questions about corporate partnerships in the nonprofit world. I picked up on it thanks to an excellent post by Geoff Livingston.

Geoff Livingston's graffiti tells you where he stands on this partnership. How about you?

Geoff’s essay involves a decision by the Susan G. Komen Foundation to partner with KFC.

“Pink” chicken? Yeah, it’s weird, but if it brings a ton of cash to fight breast cancer, what’s the problem?

That’s the question Geoff and others focus on. Check his links for some good discussion, but also search “KFC Komen” if you need more.

Partnerships like Komen-KFC raise questions about the charity’s motivation. Is it about finding a cure for breast cancer, or is it about fundraising? And why can’t it be both?

Geoff’s sees the partnership as a bad idea, and places the blame squarely on the Komen Foundation, not KFC. The fried-food giant, he says, is using the partnership to offset damage its product does to public health. Komen earns cash by “dancing with the devil.”

So in my mind the ills in the KFC/Komen partnership lie with a faulty campaign that supports product — fried chicken — which causes breast cancer. It tarnishes the Komen brand and causes more harm than good. Shame on Komen for not managing the use of their brand in a more intelligent fashion. While nonprofits desperately need cash, sacrificing your brand integrity in this fashion represents a major strategic error.

The ethical dilemma is pretty clear.

On the one hand, it is morally defensible for Komen to link with monied partners that provide the cash necessary to fight cancer. On the other hand, the KFC partnership aligns Komen’s popular pink ribbons with a product that contributes to the problem and actually promotes consumption of that product.

In the class, “Ethics & Issues in Mass Communication,” my students spend a lot of time discussing the morality but also the efficacy of business partnerships. We talk of how these partnerships might corrupt the system. But we also acknowledge that nonprofit organizations like Komen are businesses, too. They must raise money to pursue their goals, and partners with deep pockets can help.

Will the KFC-Komen partnership benefit both parties? In the short run, it will. KFC will sell fried chicken in pink buckets, and Komen will earn a tidy sum. Win-win.

But what about long-term damage to the Komen brand? Or are we all just over-reacting. Some, including social-media thought leader Jason Falls, seems to think we are. And he has a point. Jason posted this tweet just last night.

With his challenge, Jason helps us focus on the ethical dilemma. He helps bring us back to center on the issue.

Is fried chicken the best partner for a breast-cancer charity? Probably not.

But if KFC wants to join the fight against a horrible disease, should we slam the door in Colonel Sanders’ face? What should be the litmus test for these partnerships? Or should we rule them out entirely?

Geoff’s concerns are more long-term, and go to the fidelity of the Komen brand. Geoff concludes his post with a list of 7 suggestions to help nonprofits protect their brand value. If you work for one of those nonprofits, read it.

Rupert Murdoch

Back to the hypothetical. Do we accept Rupert’s generosity and rename our school? In the short term, we’d be swimming in money, and all of our students would benefit. But in the long run, what’s the fallout from putting fairness, balance, accuracy and truth up for sale?

Maybe it’s not an apt parallel to the Komen-KFC case. But maybe it is.

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26 Responses to Will corporate partnerships corrupt nonprofits?

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BillSledzik. BillSledzik said: Will corporate partnerships corrupt nonprofits? Film at 11 — probably on Fox News… My thoughts at the blog: http://bit.ly/croTnu [...]

  2. Kyle says:

    Bill – would you accept the $10 million offer from ABC, CBS or NBC?

    I don’t think having a “FOX NEWS” School of Journalism would have a negative impact on the School’s ultimate goal: To educate students and get them jobs. Employers aren’t going to say, “Oh Johnny went to Kent; we can’t hire him.” They are going to look at whether he has the skills needed to do the job well. Johnny gets most of those skills from the classroom. The School could maybe do a better job prepping those students if it has more money. …Buying better equipment, having experts in journalism and PR work with students more, increased resources in the studio\newsroom etc.

    I don’t think there would be much fallout in the long run. Kent could get an even better reputation for prepping its students for careers in journalism and PR.

    I am not sure the FOX News slam is the best parallel. And maybe my comment isn’t really exactly what your post is about.

    You once forced me to read your blog back in my PR days, and now I did it on my own. Scary!

  3. Bill Sledzik says:

    No, Kyle, I think your parallel is a good one, as is your point. $10 million from Fox — or from anyone — would help us do a much better job, just as the $$ from the pink chicken buckets will help Komen fight breast cancer.

    You’re siding with the pragmatists here. I’m leaning more toward the “brand fidelity” purists. But not because I don’t see both sides. The post is intended to focus the ethical dilemma. Each side is morally defensible.

    BTW, when you become a big shot at NBC or ABC, we’ll be inviting you back to campus often. Bring your checkbook — and the network’s checkbook!

  4. Ike says:

    I think you skirted on the edge of the issue, but didn’t quite swat at it. Jason Falls did.

    Will the Corporate Partnership corrupt a non-profit?

    No.

    Will the *perception* of corruption harm the recipient?

    Absolutely.

    The Murdoch School of Journalism and Corporate Storytelling at Kent State would likely crank out very fine graduates capable of competing for the best jobs available.

    But as long as there is a perception of bias that bleeds from the sign over the door onto the card-stock fine resume paper, then it will.

    Your examples are very different. No one – even the health nuts who would complain about “KFC Komen” believes that Komen is somehow going to de-emphasize the importance of diet in cancer prevention. Yet a sizable crowd would jeer any Kent State Communications graduate for the rest of their career, as though they killed babies and blended their carcasses for a breakfast smoothie.

    It’s not the taint, it’s the perception of taint.

    KFC’s buckets would kick the reputation rap.

    Kent’s reputation would kick the bucket.

  5. Jason Falls says:

    Jesus Christ! Fried chicken does not cause breast cancer. Fatty foods do not cause breast cancer. Obesity is a predictive factor. Fried chicken and fatty foods do not cause obesity, either.

    THE PERSON’S INABILITY TO EAT A BALANCED DIET DOES.

    Geoff is (respectfully) damn wrong on this.

    If I die of a heart attack tomorrow, it’s not Wendy’s fault. It’s not Little Debbie’s fault. It’s not Maker’s Mark’s fault. It’s mine.

  6. Wade Kwon says:

    Since Jason was kind enough to respond to my tweet (as shown above), allow me to share my responses in kind.

    @JasonFalls Not talking about indiv choice but NPO reputation management. Komen has many fund-raising options, but KFC is a bad one.

    @JasonFalls Helps KFC, hurts Komen. Short-term $ gain for Komen hurts $ drive long term. You might not agree, but many now distrust Komen.

    KFC and Komen might have been able to come up with a more sensible partnership, but alas, they did not.

    @WadeOnTweets

  7. Bill Sledzik says:

    Well, if I’ve skirted the issue, Ike, you have certainly smacked it square in the face. You, too, Jason.

    My concern isn’t that KFC will ask Komen to revise its guidelines on healthy eating, or that Komen would even entertain such a request. I am concerned — if Komen became dependent on fast-food money — that it might think twice before enacting policies or taking positions that might overtly piss off a corporate partner.

    Ditto for the Fox example, Ike. I worry that if my school were hooked to such a corporate cash source that it would subtly affect the decisions we make, the courses we teach, or the articles or blog posts we publish.

    It’s only natural to be kind to those who bring us gifts.

    So while the Komen case and my hypothetical are not the same thing, the principles at stake for the brand are similar.

    Thanks for weighing in gentleman. And J, as for what causes cancer, I can’t really say much. If I had that answer, I’d be one rich SOB.

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    And Ike, about that “School of Corporate Storytelling.” Has a nice ring to it (sans the Murdoch name). But you know that my colleagues on the news side are gagging on their shredded wheat.

  9. Taminar says:

    As someone who works for a non-profit, I understand what’s driving the Komen Foundation. I find it frustrating that a sponsor’s logo and phone number often gets stronger placement in an advertisement than our organization’s and our event information. Volunteers complain that they have to spend money on a t-shirt that carries the sponsor logo on it; they don’t want to be a walking advertisement when they’re being asked to pay for the shirts. On the other hand, sponsorships help pay for utility bills, insurance, and employees, and without all that, we wouldn’t be in business. Fried chicken may be linked to causing cancer, but a lot of people that eat it will not ever develop the disease. If KFC’s donation can help protect someone who is diagnosed (maybe even a vegan), that’s a good thing.

    On a more general note, I have never been more sick of the color pink than I am now. I appreciate the drive to cure breast cancer, I really do, but several of my close relatives have died from other forms of cancer, and I sometimes feel that research into curing the many other incarnations of cancer is getting shortchanged because of the Komen Foundation.

  10. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks, Taminar. As an insider, you see this dilemma up close and personal. As for me, I didn’t like the color pink before it became synonymous with Komen. But that leads to another point:

    Because cause marketing is so lucrative, does it not follow that corporate marketers will gravitate to causes near and dear to consumers? Of course they will. And when you consider that the bulk of consumables are purchased by women in the 25-55 age bracket, it makes more sense to align your products with breast cancer than, say, Alzheimer’s.

    As a result, the bulk of these cause marketing opportunities will go to the charities that resonate with the more well-heeled consumers.

    That’s a bit off topic, but something I wrote about back when no one read this blog.

    • Ike says:

      What do you mean?

      Nobody reads it NOW!

      • Bill Sledzik says:

        And to think just two weeks ago I was riding a crest of popularity, all because I wrote a post criticizing those little GenY brats! Back to reality!

      • Ike says:

        Glad to have you all the way down here with my on the J-List, Bill.

        Maybe if we try harder, we can make it all the way to the G-List before it’s time to hang up the spurs.

  11. MeganA says:

    Pinkwashing like what KFC/Komen are perpetuating makes one think – are they raising money to help find cures for the diseases they are raising money for or are thy just trying to stay in the business of raising money to pretend they are looking for a cure? I know the SG Komen foundation does more than sponsor research for a cure. Support services are just as important. But this partnership makes this cancer survivor wonder if they are really looking for a cure. What’s next? Partnership with the American Heart Association? There won’t be a need to change the bucket since red is reorganized color. Maybe they will be able to give them more than just the $.50 per bucket sold.

  12. MeganA says:

    @ Jason – You are right but even a balanced diet of processed, hormone injected, fecal matter eating chickens can cause harm in moderation. You would be absolutely astonished at how many people are “unaware” of the the harm in the chicken sold by KFC and other fast food organizations. The highest risk group for breast cancer is middle aged, low income African- American and Hispanic women. Theses groups (and their families) are also KFC’s top customers.

    An unbiased education is what leads to the pros and cons of anything. If I have access to said unbiased education I have a better chance at making the right choices in life. I believe the Murdoch School of Journalism and Corporate Storytelling would gag those trying to educate students on both sides of the aisle. They would chase Bill right out of the building and hire those only willing to promote And educate students on one opinion, there’s!

    • Ike says:

      Megan.

      No one said anything in the hypothetical about there being any pressure whatsoever to indoctrinate communication students (any more than they are indoctrinated in the status quo.)

      But your visceral reaction to even the concept speaks volumes to the perception issue. Some partnerships – no matter how mutually beneficial they might be from a utilitiarian standpoint – just won’t fly through the lens of perception.

      (and yes, you are being indoctrinated. you just won’t know it until later.)

  13. And if it had only been grilled chicken buckets none of us would have an opinion at all. Just a point.

  14. Rich Becker says:

    We might all be careful when considering the ends justifies the means.

    Two of the most tempting offers laid at my company’s feet could have helped me retire early and fuel my passion for supporting non-profits. One was B.U.M. fights, which capitalized on paying homeless people to beat each other up for $25/$50 a fight. The other was Yucca Mountain, despite my knowledge they were lying about some transportation data (the byproduct of researching it all on the front end as part of a advanced reporting assignment). I passed.

    I’d rather work a little longer than surrender my sense of ethic. The end doesn’t always justify the means.

    No offense, but not enough people are researching this topic in depth. Koleman has previously focused on healthy diet choices (even while admitting sure way to prevent breast cancer). They have also made the case that fat intake and weight have been linked to poorer survival and cancer recurrence and their own staff published a paper that stated: Evidence supports a role for weight control and physical activity in reducing breast cancer risk.

    Recently however, a new study that “women who gain weight in midlife may have an increased risk of developing postmenopausal breast cancer” seems to have escaped their attention this year despite listed in their own automated cancer news pickups. In fact, I wasn’t able to find any nutritional news from Koleman this year.

    By the way, a KFC chicken has 21 grams of fat, 5 grams of saturated fat, 115 mg of cholesterol, 1020 mg of Sodium, and 7 grams of carbs. One site gave it a nutritional grade of a D-, which is worse than a cheeseburger at McDonald’s.

    So to answer the above question: will corporate partnerships corrupt nonprofits? The only right answer is that it depends on the corporation and nonprofit. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.

    Have Koleman changed to cater to KFC? Hard to tell, but they do seem to have tuned down nutritional commentary. Hard to say. TIme will tell.

    You also might be interested to know that Koleman is one of the most rigid nonprofits when it comes to developing a relationship. About two years ago, I worked with a company that had tried to secure a relationship with them prior to what we were hired to do. (The company manufactured a special bra that would be more comfortable and offer more mobility than frozen pea bags. It was developed by a survivor.) Koleman turned them down, saying that anyone they partner with is paramount to an endorsement and while the product was excellent, the company was too new.

    Best,
    Rich

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Rich,

      I’m reminded that KFC earned a chapter in the advertising chapter of “Media Ethics,” by Patterson & Wilkens (6th ed). The case involves a 2003 advertising campaign that suggested original recipe KFC chicken could be part of a balanced diet, even helping you lose weight.

      http://www.mcgraw-hill.co.uk/html/0071101845.html

      If I’m the Komen Foundation, I don’t want KFC trading on my credibility.

  15. Wade Kwon says:

    Going back to Geoff’s 7 suggestions …

    “6) Is the corporation willing to work with my nonprofit to optimize the cause marketing campaign so it’s authentic, transparent and positively impacts both of our brands?”

    In the hypothetical example, Kent State is assumed to be passively receiving $10 million. Instead, Kent State could negotiate with Murdoch for better journalism ethics practices at Fox News, as taught at the school.

    * Students participate in rundown meetings via videoconferencing.
    * Staffers come in for guest lectures and workshops.
    * The partners jointly develop a Fox News code of ethics.

    It’s an opportunity for the school to make a positive impact beyond the classroom.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Interesting suggestions, Wade. But would anyone believe the message? I’ll come back to the point Ike made earlier. It’s not whether the partnership taints your reputation. It’s the “perception of taint” you have to worry about.

      • Wade Kwon says:

        There’s always the risk of perception and reputation. But let’s say Fox News truly wanted to improve its ethical practices. It could do so on its own, with full transparency, or it could try to add legitimacy to its effort by partnering with a respected journalism school to hold it accountable. Money clouds the issue, but we have to be creative in coming up with solutions in which everyone wins.

  16. [...] marketing and nonprofit people critiqued a recent Komen/KFC campaign from both sides of the fence (check out Bill Sledzik’s excellent discussion). The reality was the intent may have been outstanding on both parts: Fight the impact of fried [...]

  17. [...] marketing and nonprofit people critiqued a recent Komen/KFC campaign from both sides of the fence (check out Bill Sledzik’s excellent discussion). The reality was the intent may have been outstanding on both parts: Fight the impact of fried [...]

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