Why charity is a new, hot marketing tool

The Chive Charities team celebrates reaching the monetary goal for Lucy Pate, a young lady born with King’s Syndrome.
Source: Resignation Media

When most people of think of digital publication The Chive, they think of the clickbait-style slideshows of Internet humor and scantily clad women that have led 30 million unique, mostly millennial male visitors to the site every month.

After all, the Resignation Media flagship property has become famous for self-submitted half-naked photos of female "Chivette" readers, and pulling Photoshop pranks that have tricked the mainstream media. It even has its own beer company, Resignation Brewery.

But, while its readers have helped it bring in more than $10 million in annual revenue, the same Chivers have aided it in giving more than $4 million through Chive Charities. The "flash charity" organization was founded in 2012 to work on under-the-radar causes like rare medical conditions and military support.

"If you think of The Chive, our identity really is the three h's: hotness, humor and humanity," co-founder John Resig said.

The idea of corporations donating money isn't a new idea, but Joy Stephan, who founded pro-social consulting group 20Chairs, said more companies are taking a more active role in their outreach.

"What companies like The Chive is doing is making it easy to feel good about things people are already doing," she said. "Companies are increasingly looking at the challenges they are facing internally, and looking externally to how collaborating with the social sector can be mutually beneficial."

It's helped by the fact that millennials respond favorably to charitable corporate programs. Stephan said they're likely to share about ideas that resonate with them on social media, which in turn becomes free positive marketing for the brand.

Plus, industry insiders note that millennials are more likely to "vote with their dollars" for a company that aligns with their beliefs, given the wave of corporate cynicism that pervades today's world.

Recently, Chive Charities raised $85,000 in just two hours for Active Heroes, an organization that works with veterans suffering from PTSD and suicidal thoughts. The media company supplemented the fundraising with a $25,000 donation from its own pocket. The proceeds will go towards building a family retreat for members of the Active Heroes organization.

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Besides proving that bros may have a heart, the charitable focus is aiding The Chive in rebranding itself as more than a superficial website. While the founders say the company never needed to take investment money, advertising could be an area of growth for them. In 2013, they told Bloomberg Businessweek that they made four times as much money from revenue from merchandising as compared to ad dollars.

The founders emphasize that though the charitable arm has driven significant engagement across all their brands, the main goal of their efforts remains to help people. They said the charity efforts show the power of passionate online audiences, and it's more than just a marketing ploy.

"We definitely highlight when we're doing sales pitches with media buyers who have a one- or two-dimensional view of our site," co-founder and John's brother, Leo Resig, said. "When they see that, it makes it easier to spend. At the end of the day, we go out and have our community meetups and raise money for charity. The website is great, but we don't just do that."

"That's very unsexy for people to hear that our core competency is charity," John added.

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For example, in July 2014, Unilever unveiled Collectively, a non-profit digital publication for young adults that focuses on sustainable living. Some of the content comes from brands such as Coca-Cola, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Nike, Nestlé and PepsiCo, but it also welcomes independent voices to write on its platform. It also has been funding Project Sunlight, a mass media campaign to promote environmentally friendly lifestyles. The Guardian wrote in 2010 that Unilever's environmental audit and sustainable agriculture plans were a "game changer" for how corporations should behave.

The angle is contrary to the press Unilever was receiving just a few years back in 2007, when it had been accused by Greenpeace of causing deforestation in India for palm oil. It has since committed to sourcing all of its raw agricultural products sustainably by 2020.

FedEx worked with the EMBARQ (the World Resource Institute's center for sustainable transport) to build a bus lane through Mexico City in 2011 to help cut down pollution and encourage public transportation. It also provided its knowledge for other EMBARQ sustainable transport projects in developing countries. Stephan said that in addition to the outreach, the project aided FedEx in clearing up congestion in some of the busiest cities in the world.

Stephan pointed out that not all companies are just jumping into philanthropy now. In fact, those who have genuinely and organically done so since their inception tend to have the most effective campaigns.

For example, Patagonia's grant program has donated more than $68 million since its inception in 1985. Recently, it has expanded its charitable efforts to allow employees to take up to two months off to work for for an environmental group while still earning their company pay and benefits through the Environmental Internship Program. It also funded the production of DamNation, a 2014 documentary about the negative environmental effect some of the nation's dams are having on wildlife.

"We do see a great response from customers of all ages who are looking to support companies who live and breathe their values in how they do business," Adam Fetcher, director of global PR and communications for Patagonia, said.

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Stephan said that while there has been some rhetoric against "green washing," the vast majority of companies that have been in philanthropy have done it without any expectation of immediate financial returns. However, she said it helps that giving back is now self-generating effective marketing.

"People talk about it and what the company is doing," she said. "It may have started out as 'We're going to do good because it will look good,' but the good is getting better for their sustainable goals."