Fundraising is a tough and competitive business. To do it well, you have to be single-minded about separating donors and sponsors from their cash. Sometimes the best pathway to that cash can require a little edginess and some ruffled sensitivities.

The typical donor likes happy endings; the promise of a cancer cure or a story about a kid that escapes from poverty and abuse to lead a worthwhile life. We are also moved by pity and especially pity for people who look like us except they have had some misfortune like a disability or a redundancy. We are not so good at giving to people who make us feel uncomfortable.

Our hot buttons influence who gets money and the images the fundraisers use to get it.

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People with disabilities have often been the losers in this game. The marketers can get money with images that invoke pity. Those images also re-inforce social prejudices and limit the opportunities for people with disabilities to lead independent lives and participate fully in community life. Still, says the cash-strapped fundraiser, what harm can a picture of a little blind girl really do?

When I was doing some pro bono PR work for Special Olympics (for people with intellectual disabilities) in North Carolina in 1999, the excitement was great when we saw the first ever primetime TV ad (for milk) to feature a Special Olympics athlete.

This year Coca-Cola sponsored the Special Olympics in Beijing and they also made a TV ad. A fantastic ad that is full of positive images about the effort and achievements of these athletes. Have a look on Youtube and note the message of participation it celebrates, no pity on show here.

These ads are amazingly important because they bring intellectual disability out of the shadows of our fear and pity; how effective they were at selling product or raising funds is another question. Nevertheless, no doubt Coca-cola got some reputational payoff by associating itself with this terrific cause.

Coca-Cola, through the Mt Franklin water label, is also a sponsor of the National Breast Cancer Foundation in Australia. This tie-up, with its distinctive pink caps, very definitely works for Coca-Cola by boosting awareness, sales and market share significantly. Unsurprisingly, the hideous accompanying “well of positivity” website has been less successful. The sentimentality on this site is just too over the top.

This year’s pink cap campaign features some three-dimensional billboards which clearly exploit our culture’s fascination with breasts to grab attention. They show the top parts of two bottles thrusting out from billboards with the pink caps resembling nipples. Although the accompanying slogan refers to raising awareness about breast cancer, there’s no effort here to challenge stereotypes or anything similarly noble.

Tasteful it is not, but the campaign has to keep delivering a return on investment or Coca-Cola is unlikely to persist with it. That’s the difference between a donation and a sponsorship. Donors want their money to make a difference to the cause they support. Sponsors want their “investment” to result in tangible commercial benefits for their shareholders. No-one just hands over the money.

Large plastic breasts sticking out from billboards are part of the reality of sponsorship. It’s a bit grubby but breast cancer kills women and it takes money to do the research that might lead to a cure. If you want to raise that money you have to give the donors and sponsors a bit of what they want.

See how power works in this country.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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