Please, Do Nothing: The Non-Profit Industrial Complex and the Capture of a Generation
On June 6, The New York Times ran the following article by Stuart Elliott about the partnership between Do Something, “the country’s largest not-for-profit for young people and social change” and large corporations looking for tips on how to better market to young people. The Lone Pamphleteer couldn’t help but take the opportunity to comment on the non-profit industrial complex, the evils of corporations and marketing, and the deep dread that partnerhips such as these should invoke in all of us.
Nonprofit Group to Help For-Profit Marketers Reach Youth
Do Something, the national nonprofit organization that encourages young Americans to become involved in causes and civic action, is doing something different: starting a unit devoted to helping marketers and other organizations better engage with young Americans.
In keeping with an approach at Do Something to not take itself so seriously, the unit is being named TMI, as in “Too Much Information.” A presentation that Do Something has prepared about the new unit offers this comment under the TMI logo, “Just kidding, there’s never too much info!”
TMI will offer marketers and organizations services like those already used by Do Something in creating cause campaigns, which it promotes each year to its 1.7 million members and other Americans ages 13 to 25.
TMI is being led by Aria Finger, as president. She is also chief operating officer at Do Something in New York.
The formation of TMI is indicative of how much time and attention Madison Avenue continues to devote to figuring out the best methods of wooing the youth market, particularly the so-called millennials, who are teenagers through about age 30.
Another example occurred in February, when MRY — an agency in New York, formerly known as Mr. Youth, that specializes in youth marketing and social media — absorbed the North American operations of the giant digital agency LBi in a reorganization by the new LBi parent, the Publicis Groupe.
“The demand is there,” Ms. Finger, 30, said in a telephone interview. “Over the years, our corporate and nonprofit partners have said, ‘Can you come in and consult with us? Teach us about social? Teach us about mobile?’ But we didn’t have the bandwidth.”
TMI will follow Do Something’s lead in the types of clients it will accept. For instance, Ms. Finger said, “neither Do Something nor TMI would partner with a liquor company or a tobacco company.”
Asked about other sorts of marketers that may be under scrutiny for the kinds of products they sell, she replied: “We’d have to weigh the pluses and minuses. You need to be pragmatic.”
What about, for instance, a soft-drink maker? “I drink a Diet Coke every once in a while,” Ms. Finger said, laughing.
She expressed a similar attitude when discussing what TMI means, describing it as “sort of tongue in cheek, ‘We have too much information and we want to share it.’ ”
TMI, as a unit of Do Something, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, will also operate as a nonprofit group. Asked if that was an unfair advantage over profit-making agencies and companies that specialize in youth marketing, Ms. Finger replied, “Our true ‘unfair advantage’ comes from our access to young people.”
“There is a possibility,” she added, that TMI could be “spun out as a for-profit, as we grow.”
A sampling of Do Something’s sponsors:
- American Express
- Foot Locker Foundation, Inc.
- H&R Block
- JetBlue Airways
- Johnson & Johnson
- Nestlé Waters
- Sprint Foundation
- Virgin Mobile
- The Walmart Foundation
Do Something’s board of directors include Steve Buffone, corporate lawyer at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, a firm that represents Fox, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Disney, and Walmart, among others; John Faucher, a managing director at JPMorgan Chase and the “US Beverages and Household Products Personal Care analyst; that means he researches companies we love such as PepsiCo”; and Kim Kadlec, responsible for global media buying for J&J, a “food and beverage manufacturing and marketing conglomerate.”
Do Something, and its new TMI program, offering know-how on reaching young people to some of the world’s largest corporations, is a classic example of the non-profit industrial complex. Some argue that non-profits like Do Something are doing something and that it’s simply a reality that big money comes from those with big money— corporations, their executives, and the foundations set up by them. The argument goes that at least good, social-justice-oriented organizations get some funding and the difference they are able to make is better than nothing.
Do Something’s campaigns include preventing teen pregnancy, demonstrating what it would feel like to be undocumented for a day, and ending hunger in America. All worthy causes, no doubt, but will encouraging text-messaging and petition-signing actually change the underlying issues causing many of these social ills: rapidly growing gaps in the distribution of wealth and power, supported by policies bought and paid for by the corporate one percent? How could they, given Do Something’s simultaneous marketing and brand promotion on behalf of its corporate sponsors?
Many of the crises we face today— environmental, financial, social, political— stem from the fact that we are addicted to consuming more and more, all the time, both as individuals and as a nation. Economic recovery requires constant growth, but constant growth puts the delicate balance of endangered ecosystems (that we depend on for survival) in further jeopardy. The tension between these exigencies, and what we’re going to do about it, defines our era. Teaching young people, as Do Something does, that changing the world involves not decreasing consumption and brand loyalty but ramping it up, defangs a generation that will need to develop skepticism against companies that won our hearts long ago if real change will ever be possible.
Corporations have a clear stake in the game and a strategy to match it: keep extracting, producing, trading, marketing, consuming, and wasting, until we have nothing left and we have transferred all of our wealth and power into their hands. Allowing these interests to run not only our government and media but also our social justice non-profits is scary indeed, and this symbiotic marketing parternship, targeted at millennials who will inherit this dying earth, is even scarier.