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September 2, 2010 / Ben Chun

Kohl’s: Cares? Or just wants the Likes?

This year’s big “free money for schools” contest thing is being run by Kohl’s. And, honestly, the $10 MM (ten million dollars!) they’ve put up makes Care2 and GreatSchools look cheap for running the same kind of contest, but with only $34,000 in prizes last year. Each one of the top 20 schools in the Kohl’s contest will get $500,000 which I can tell you from personal experience goes a long way — particularly since they restrict it not to be spent on professional development, scholarships, fundraising, or overhead.

But while the Care2’s voting process simply required an email address, Kohl’s is doing it through a Facebook app that wants to access my name, profile picture, gender, networks, user ID, list of friends, Likes, Music, TV, Movies, Books, Quotes and Education History before I can vote. I’m not particularly concerned about my privacy around what I’ve put there on Facebook, but I wonder if the other 2 million people using the app are thinking about what it means to give a department store ongoing access to that stuff.

For me, a bunch of other questions come up too: Does Kohl’s get to write off the $10 MM from their taxes as a charitable donation? They’re definitely getting marketing value from it, and while it’s unclear exactly how to quantify that value, their executive vice president and chief marketing officer, Julie Gardner, calls it the “cornerstone” of their back-to-school marketing campaign this year.

Does this kind of cargo-cult funding (dropping money out of the sky) have a net positive impact on schools? Or does it foster a bake-sale culture where people spend lots of time and energy doing things like voting in contests and convincing other people to vote in contests instead of focusing on deeper philanthropic and educational relationships? I’m not saying that a contest like this is malicious, but it does seem misguided.

Call me cynical but I don’t think anyone could possibly believe that this is the best way to use a large sum of money for the benefit schools and children and the educational system. And speaking of cynical, some private schools are just straight up buying votes. After all, the potential of winning $500k starts to make a small investment in votes look pretty leveraged. This seems like a weird distortion, but then again, wasn’t the original intent to start a popularity contest between schools, involving as many parent and child consumers as possible?

While the official rules of the contest also say that the money can’t fund religious programs, 8 of the 20 schools poised to win are orthodox Jewish religious schools. So this is going to get tricky at some point — Kohl’s is either going to be in the position of not giving money to a school that won, or trying to figure out what things a religious school does that aren’t religious. Is there monitoring? Accountability? This starts to look a lot like the road that venture philanthropists have had such a notoriously tough time on when funding charter networks.

The high school I work for actually ended up in the money last year (fifth place, $1,000) in the Care2 contest. When the time came to get the check, they tried to get our principal to sign a publicity release stating that she would,

“hereby grant to Sponsor and its agents the right to use the School’s name, address (city and state), biographical information and/or Award information, without limitation, on Sponsor’s website, printed or electronic media, advertising and promotional materials, and the Winner’s list, without further permission or additional compensation of any kind to the School or anyone else; and nothing herein shall require or obligate Sponsor to use School’s name and information except as required by law”

which of course in San Francisco Unified School District she doesn’t have the power to do without approval of the school board or the legal department or something and so in the end we just let it go. But I bet principals and schools and school districts are willing to bend a lot further for $500k than $1k. From my perspective, the situation where public institutions need to grub around just to afford to run a quality operation is sad. But the fact that corporate interests are the ones throwing the scraps around, and scheming to profit even from their acts of charity tells you something about how we got here as a society.

3 Comments

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  1. Samer / Sep 3 2010 1:21 pm

    Hi Ben,

    I can’t speak to Kohl’s motivations, but as the person responsible for Care2’s contests, I have a pretty good handle on our own reasoning. :-)

    It’s simple really and speaks to the heart of what Care2 is about: we want to empower people to do good and to do so in a way that’s sustainable for both them and us.

    The original inspiration for our contests was to find a way to inspire communities to support their local institutions. We’ve organized several contests now: for animal rescues, farmer’s markets, and of course schools. Each time, we believe that each of the stakeholders involved (participants, sponsors, etc.) benefited.

    Also, even if a participating contestant didn’t win, we feel that the organizing effort around their effort strengthened the bonds between them and their community.

    Would it be more efficient to fund all these institutions directly? Probably, except that you’d then lose the relationship building. And in our case, we just don’t have those kinds of resources, and if we did, we’d immediately go out of business. :-)

    Finally, I’ll add that Care2 sponsors other ways to help schools, namely an easy way to become politically active. Just check out:

    http://www.thepetitionsite.com/education/non-profit/

    If there isn’t a petition there that resonates, then people are free to create there own at:

    http://www.thepetitionsite.com/create.html

    Perhaps I’m biased, but for me, that route is the best one for creating across-the-board improvements in the state of education in the U.S.

    Best regards,

    Samer Rabadi
    Community Activism Manager
    Care2.com & ThePetitionSite.com

  2. Ben Chun / Sep 6 2010 1:59 pm

    Thanks for the comment Samer. I wouldn’t exactly say that you’re biased, more just that you’re doing your job by stating the party line here.

    I like the idea of encouraging institutions to build relationships within their communities and inspire local support. I’m just not sure I believe that saying, “vote for us in this contest you didn’t know about until now,” is really a way to build the kind of relationships we need.

    It’s also clear to me that your contest was far less problematic than what Kohl’s is doing now. Yes, the motivation to run a contest in all cases is for the sponsor to gain access to more potential customers or users. But since Care2’s purpose in the world is to empower people to do good, that’s a lot easier for me to swallow than Kohl’s purpose, which is to make profits for shareholders.

    In general, I feel that students, parents, teachers, and administrators should start from the beginning: What are we trying to accomplish together, and what do we need to do to get there? Then we can assess a given opportunity, such as a contest, to see if it fits our goals. Instead, I think people often start from an opportunity (particularly if it’s well-advertised and has a large dollar amount attached) and fall all over themselves trying to get the money without asking if that direction and investment of energy is the most effective use of our limited resources.

    If we started from the premise, “As a school are going to reach out to all of our students and parents and community partners and ask them to contact their friends and associates on our behalf,” would we really ask for so little as a click on someone else’s web site? In my view, we can and should be doing something much more meaningful.

  3. Steven / Sep 8 2010 6:38 am

    A little market – KTA is it’s name. Supported the 3 elementary schools and 2 middle schools by giving back 0.5% of every purchase made in their supermarket from June – August. You simply named the school to the checkout clerk and you total went into one of 5 columns. If you didn’t choose, it was divided equally.

    The stores got $hopper$, schools got money and everyone met in the aisles. Don’t know what the IRS implication was.

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