Air Miles for Volunteering: Oxymoronic? Cause-washing? Genius!

In my view American Express should get a handshake for its new initiative, but many think a slap on the wrist is more deserving.  American Express is offering 500 points to members of its rewards program for every hour they volunteer. The program is capped at 10,000 points or 20 hours per year and volunteers must choose from a pre-selected list of organizations to qualify for the program. Volunteers can also choose to turn their reward points into direct donations to a nonprofit.

Comments on Jennifer Saranow Schultz’s post for the New York Times surprised and excited me. What I quickly saw as a smart idea with positive effects was seen as phony, even downright insulting.

“I don’t believe in paying money to volunteers, even indirectly. That’s the whole point of being a volunteer: you do it for the love….I’m not an American Express customer. If I were, I would not sign up for this. It is antithetical to my purpose in being a volunteer–indeed, it goes against everything I believe about volunteering.”

And

“Not exactly volunteering if you’re doing it for the miles…”

Certainly this speaks to the pride that volunteers have. I get this. The offer of a reward, even indirectly, seems to diminish their relationship to the people and cause they volunteer with.  But there’s more here.

There’s confusion between money and cause. People are as squeamish about being rewarded (in whatever form) for an act of goodwill or support of a cause, just as people are squeamish about cause or goodwill when they’re connected to business. They’re two ends of the avenue with a glorious park in the middle where pedestrians meet and good things happen.

We don’t complain when an employer gives us paid time-off to volunteer and we don’t complain when (as one commenter to the post deftly remarked) we get lunch or free or reduced admission to an event. We don’t complain when the Springfield Credit Card Company offers its reward members gym discounts to encourage healthy behavior, even though they are projecting a certain image in doing it.

So why is this causing hand-wringing? Is it over a fear that more people will volunteer…for miles? Scary stuff, that. Or is it because the reward comes from a corporation (this particular kind having a bludgeoned public perception) instead of from  a nonprofit?

To be frank, I can’t foresee swarms of people switching to American Express and beginning to volunteer to collect miles, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it did work that way? Wonderful for the nonprofits who can use more hands and for those mileage-greedy volunteers who are likely to gain more than miles for their time and volunteer again or become a continued supporter of the cause.

The cause-washing claim is pretty lousy here. AmEx isn’t requiring participants to purchase anything. I find it more generous than the company’s 1983 pioneering cause marketing campaign which required a purchase to trigger a 1-cent donation from AmEx. In the end, the company grew card use and new applications significantly. But it also helped to put a shine back on Lady Liberty by donating $1.7 million for restoration.

As consumers we’re rightly skeptical of public relations moves that polish a company’s image. But this campaign isn’t strong enough to negate any bad behavior on AmEx’s part. That needs to be fixed through one-on-one customer service. Customers are too smart to fall for just a PR stunt, right?

You can read about the whole program here.

Weigh in. Clearly, I have a lot to say about this, but what do you think? Leave it in the comments or email me directly, olivia(at)causecapitalism.com.

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