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Is Guilt a Sustainable Way to Pry Open Pockets?

By CCA LiveE

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

By Sarah Anne White

Why we should run screaming in the other direction from “Gala” or “Gift” Economics

How many times have you been stopped on the street on the way into your favorite, overpriced, coffee shop only to be asked to contribute “a mere ten dollars a month” (much less than what you spend on your over-caffeinated, double-whip latte every week) to what appears to be a very worth cause?

How many times have you caught yourself quickly scrambling for the remote in an effort to change the channel when one of those tear-jerking, starving children or homeless pet commercials pops on the TV? What about your neighborhood grocer that asks you, loud enough to let the next person in line hear, if you would like to donate one measly dollar to help your local school or not?

What about the fancy dinner party your coworker invites you to that promises to assuage your guilt for spending way too much on a dress or suit (as well as the money spent at the bar afterwards) by donating a small portion of the proceeds to help better humanity?

In the words of Seth Godin, “… being invited to a gala feels like a gift. It’s nice to be asked, to be noticed, to be included. The socially appropriate response is to accept the gift and say yes.”

Similar to the examples given above, this last invitation is laden with guilt and the need for external approval.

It’s time we stop feeling guilty.

Marketers have been misusing this important, self-regulating emotion for decades to influence consumer decisions and donor generosity. Most notably in the non-profit sector, the over-played guilt factor actually works against their goal and taints their brand image. What is it that inspires non-profit organizers and for-profit businesses alike to guilt donations and support out of people? Why is it still seen as an acceptable motivator and energy expended on it?

Guilt has been a standard method and passively accepted for years (recent studies include Becheur 2007; Basil 2008; Lwin and Phau 2009), but for generosity and brand loyalty to become pervasive and long-lasting, they need to flow from an inspired initiative. We desperately need more people willing to step up and start motivating generosity through encouragement, inspiration and camaraderie, such as the Lance Armstrong Foundation, instead of fostering a guilty conscience.

Without a sense of sincere connection to the cause or business, one that can now be tracked through consumer conversations in the myriad forms of social media, we fail to become engaged and the experience ends up being the furthest thing from enjoyable for all parties involved.

Why does it have to be enjoyable? At our very core, (right down to our cells according to Richard Dawkins) we are selfish creatures. There must be, at best, a mutually beneficial balance to our actions whether it’s a physical or emotional reward. It’s basic human psychology that we don’t respond well to guilt as a sustainable motivator in long-term commitments. Our motivation and emotional connection fades quickly when rooted in guilt. When used as emotional blackmail it strangles passion, enthusiasm and commitment over time. If you can craft a story and business model around empowering or validating your potential customer or donor you can start to create a more cyclical connection that has the potential to transcend generations.

The points of comparison, scale and context can still be used to “set the stage” for generosity and to generate meaning and shared values without creating guilt. While these examples are mostly for-profit companies, they are working with non-profits to create change and inspire hope and generosity.

There’s an abundance of businesses today that are looking for ways to take care of their triple bottom line, and changing their model to include a partnership with non-profits on a permanent basis would be a move in the right direction. Transparency is crucial to avoid confusion about where the funds are headed. However, the available resources that  for-profits have to share with non-profits and the increased brand loyalty stemming from consumer self-gratification from helping a non-profit through purchasing a product or service, embodies the balanced state we should look to achieve.

Let’s agree to stand with those that cultivate motivation and craft engaging stories in a healthy way (such as the “one for one” model used by companies such as Tom’s and Warby Parker,  the “loan and repeat” model like KivaSalesforces’s 1/1/1 model or the self-involvement method of Mycharitywater.org) and reach out to help those using guilt as a primary motivator move from social obligation to captivated generosity.

[Image Credit: Neil Wax]


Hailing from Michigan (with stops in London, Atlanta, Columbus and Austin along the way), Sarah Anne White has now set up shop in San Francisco. She has a B.S. in Interior Design from the University of Cincinnati with experience in hospitality, education, retail and corporate environments. Sarah is currently pursuing a dual-degree for an MFA in Design and an MBA in Design Strategy at the California College of Arts. Connect with Sarah via
, LinkedIn, or Twitter.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for <a href="https://www.triplepundit.com/category/cca-livee/">The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts</a>. <a href="https://www.triplepundit.com/category/cca-livee/">Read more about the project here</a>.

Read more stories by CCA LiveE