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Five Principles of Philanthropy Messaging

Uber, why do you make it so hard to love you?  Even when you try to do the right thing, you do it in the wrong way.

This week, Uber has been pushing out emails to its customers advertising its latest attempt to recapture some positive PR: a partnership with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).  And this one comes from David Plouffe, so we know it’s important.  But is it effective?

Here at maslansky + partners, we work with a lot of clients who want to talk about their charitable efforts and CSR commitments.  Of course, every challenge is different, but we’ve learned a few things about how to talk about philanthropy and CSR so that it doesn’t sound like greenwashing.  Let’s look at those principles—and how Uber did against them.

Principle #1: Your philanthropic commitments must be relevant to your core business.  Plouffe’s email starts with an important point: “Ridesharing helps make cities safer.”  Uber’s got it right here.  Drunk driving is a real problem, and it’s true that Uber and its ridesharing competitors have made a real positive impact.  This is absolutely the perfect issue for Uber to be involved with.

Principle #2: You’ve got to make a meaningful contribution.  Uber is using Super Bowl Sunday to make a push for ridesharing.  According to Plouffe, they will make a $1 contribution to MADD for every ride taken on Sunday, February 1 between 3:00pm and 12:00am ET, under certain conditions (more on that in a second).  I don’t know what the statistics are for cab rides on Super Bowl Sunday, but I’m guessing they’re not close to the numbers for New Year’s Eve or even Valentine’s Day.  Uber gets a partial score on this one.

Principle #3: Don’t make me do any work.  Here’s where things really go off the rails.  Uber is only making their $1 contribution when riders punch in a promo code.  (For the record, the code is THINKANDRIDE.)  There are two problems with this approach.  First, I’ve used Uber for a while and I have no idea how or where to input promo codes.  Am I really going to take the time to figure it out for a $1 contribution to charity?  Second, chances are pretty good that when I request this Uber ride, I’m going to be pretty drunk.  And frankly, promo codes are the last thing on my mind when I’m drunk.  In short, making its customers do the work drastically reduces the impact of Uber’s charitable giving.  Which brings me to the next principle…

Principle #4: No ulterior motives allowed.  The second consumers think you’re using charity as a means to making some other, profit-driven end, you lose.  And in Uber’s case, the ulterior motive is not hard to divine.  The subject of the email is, “Choice is a powerful thing.”  At first glance, that doesn’t seem to have much to do with drunk driving, but it has plenty to do with Uber’s desire to get permission to operate in more cities and states.  People are already suspicious of Uber’s motives.  By talking about “choice,” Uber is giving them an opportunity to confirm those suspicions and dismiss this as just another PR stunt.

Principle #5: Inspire real change.  Of course, the real goal of any charity effort should be to create change.  And here again, Uber has the right idea: the email ends with a call to ensure that “drunk driving crashes become a thing of the past.”  But there’s no real, inspirational call to action.  The email reads like a memo to a politician, not an emotional appeal to potential drunk drivers.  And that’s the real tragedy here—Uber had an opportunity to really connect what it does to a serious social problem, and it fell short.

Continuing with the Super Bowl theme, Uber is a bit like the New England Patriots of ridesharing.  They’re both really good at what they do, but they both have a reputation for arrogance and cheating. And they’re both shamelessly using kittens to soften their image.