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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Research Friday: Attention Philanthropy: The Good, the Bad, and the Road Ahead

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice. We welcome your comments and feedback.

To celebrate my very first blog post, I decided to be brave: I will introduce an emerging concept: “Attention Philanthropy” (AP). This concept is actually inspired by a branch of economics called “attention economics” (AE), an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity. I define AP as philanthropy that is primarily concerned with getting donors and supporters to pay attention to a certain cause.

AP as a marketing strategy is not entirely new: many nonprofits have been using similar principles to further their philanthropic efforts. However, this practice is becoming increasingly prevalent as we enter the second decade of the 21st century. In our increasingly information-saturated world, people’s capacity for attention is overwhelmed by the 24-hour news cycle, countless social media outlets, and endless information at our fingertips.

As a result, they often fail to notice organizations or causes that are not constantly in their faces in a flashy and memorable way. Thus, philanthropy and charity work are driven by attention like never before. Nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs must confront the challenge of getting — and keeping — people’s attention to their great work. 

Somewhat ironically, an excellent example of how AP enhances organizational mission can be seen in a for-profit business: TOMS Shoes. TOMS Shoes is a shoe company with a charitable cause: For every pair sold, a new pair is donated to a child in need of shoes. Although they famously spend very little on formal advertising, they have developed a unique, grassroots marketing approach that involves a series of attention-grabbing events. One such event is their “One Day without Shoes” campaign.

On this day, people across the globe are asked to go without shoes in order to feel what it is like for a child to go without shoes. It quickly leads to a domino effect: college kids walk around campus without shoes to show their support for the campaign; celebrities endorse this cause and plug it on their TalkShoes, Twitter feeds, or Facebook pages. Such clever attention-getting strategies have exposed numerous people to TOMS’ message in a unique way that is bound to stay with them and are crucial to TOMS’ business and philanthropic success. Since TOMS launched in 2006, over 1,000,000 pairs of shoes have been given to children in more than 20 countries.

Yet attention can cut both ways, as the Greg Mortenson controversy illustrates. Greg Mortensen, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Central Asia Institute (CAI), is a genius in AP. He used his best-selling books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools to promote the cause of his organization. In his books, he tells the story of founding his nonprofit and recounts tales of the struggles they faced while fulfilling their mission of providing education to girls in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. These books have given him a large and intense fan base. He is constantly touring the country and world to talk about his books and CAI, and is frequently featured on major news networks, television interviews, and print articles.

Until last year, his media popularity ensured a steady flow of charitable donations from his fans and readers into CAI, which enabled them to vastly increase the size and scope of their operations. Earlier this year, however, Mortensen came under heavy scrutiny for alleged inaccuracies in his books, gaps in accounting, and possible exaggeration in the number of schools his organization has built. Regardless of whether these allegations prove to be true, this controversy has seriously damaged his reputation and challenged the legitimacy of his organizations.

What are the implications of AP for nonprofit management and leadership? As demonstrated by these examples, AP offers opportunities as well as poses challenges for nonprofit leaders. They must distinguish their organization from the myriad of other organizations with the same goal of attracting and retaining attention. They must be more vigilant and innovative than ever in finding new ways to reach their target audiences to gain support for their organizations. Yet on the other hand, if they focus too much on gaining and retaining the public’s attention, there is danger of losing sight of mission and accountability.

What do you think of AP? I am currently working on a research concept paper about Attention Philanthropy, and I would love to hear your stories, comments, and suggestions!

Chao Guo is Associate Professor of Nonprofit Management in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at the University of Georgia. Previously, he was on the faculty of the Arizona State University and worked with the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Innovation. He received his Ph.D. in Public Administration from the University of Southern California.

Author's Note: I would like to thank the students of my Social Entrepreneurship and Nonprofit Governance & Management classes (Spring 2011) for their valuable input.


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