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Philanthropic shopping: to give and to get

If you were shopping at the Gap a few weeks ago, perhaps you needed a new sweater. Or perhaps you wanted to contribute some money toward empowering women and girls in the global fight against poverty. Maybe, by buying a sweater, you did both.

Last month's four-day shopping event, called Gap Give & Get, resulted from a partnership between the Gap and CARE Canada, the international aid-development organization. Consumers were given a coupon for 30 per cent off their Gap purchases over those four days, with 5 per cent of sales going to CARE Canada. It's one of several such pairings on the retail scene right now.

This growing confluence of retail and charity is a way for consumers to engage in philanthropy through shopping. It's called cause-related marketing and we've all seen it, from lipsticks for AIDS charities to grocery-store mushrooms in pink packages in support of breast-cancer awareness. But while the focus on causes is a noble one, it also raises a question: Why do consumers increasingly feel the need to get something in return for donations?

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"If you want people to give money, the feel-good argument isn't enough any more. People want something in return," Jordan Le Bel, associate professor of marketing at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal, says bluntly. Le Bel adds that charities like CARE must compete for consumer attention as much as any retail brand.

"It all comes down to providing the consumer with a choice," says Kieran Green of CARE Canada. "There are people who don't feel they have the money to make a regular donation, but they do need to buy products, so they'll go for a product that provides a [charitable]return." In other words, it's a case of win-win-win for everyone involved, a form of marketing multi-tasking. With Gap Give & Get, for instance, the consumer gets the discount, the retailer enjoys added foot traffic and the charity gets both extra funding and greater visibility.

CARE Canada and the Gap began their Give & Get campaign, which they roll out three times a year, in early 2009. They have also partnered in a program called PACE (Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement), which sees CARE Canada assist female garment workers in the Gap's factories through literacy, training and work-and-life-skills programs.

Erin Armstrong of CARE Canada says there's a rigorous due-diligence process when it comes to choosing retail partners. "After doing research on our end, CARE is fully satisfied that the Gap is a responsible corporate citizen," she says. And that endorsement just may be a bigger "win" for the chain than mere added foot traffic: The corporate entity acquires a priceless halo of social responsibility, a rare thing in the marketplace.

While everyone appears to profit, though, the cynic in me can't help but pipe in, "Isn't it better to donate directly to the charity and just wear a sweater I already have in my closet?" Armstrong says that CARE Canada does have a strong donor base of its own and that cause-related marketing complements that primary focus. She also notes that the Gap Give & Get campaign has raised a quarter of a million dollars in less than two years.

You can't argue with those numbers, especially when the money is going to a good cause, but straight donations may still be the most "feel-good" option for those of us who don't need more stuff. Putting 100 per cent of a sum toward charity can be more satisfying than just five per cent. If you don't need that new sweater, that is.

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