Charity, scandal and reputation laundering

Charity, scandal and reputation laundering

Jon Dean

There’s a scene in The Simpsons where Sideshow Bob, imprisoned for framing his boss Krusty the Clown, is up for parole. Challenged by a lawyer that the tattoo on his chest reading ‘Die Bart, Die’ suggests he will kill his nemesis Bart Simpson on his release, Bob replies calmly that no, the tattoo is German for ‘The Bart, The’. As the audience chuckle warmly one parole panel member turns to another and says, ‘No one who speaks German could be an evil man.’

US Senator Kelly Loeffler is hoping her electorate take a similar attitude to those who give to charity. In a new advert, part of a series costing $4m in air time, the Georgia Senator promotes three charitable actions she has taken over the last few weeks – donating her Senate pay to fight coronavirus, using her private plane to bring stranded Georgians home safely, and donating $1m to a Georgia hospital. The fact Loeffler has a million dollars to give away and a private plane to provide comes from her time as CEO of a digital financial services company, and her husband’s wealth as current Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, with an estimated family net worth of over $500m. A cynic however may be tempted to argue that Loeffler is only promoting her recent charitable work because she was in the news for incredibly negative reasons.

In March, Loeffler, both the youngest and richest member of the Senate, was accused of trading stocks based on private information briefings she received as a Senator. Her and her husband are accused of selling off stock worth several million dollars from companies likely to be impacted by coronavirus, at the same time as Loeffler and her Republican colleagues were downplaying the seriousness of the virus. As one of her electoral opponents Doug Collins put it: “There are a lot of people angry at a person who has possibly used non-public information to benefit themselves personally while telling Georgians it was all going to be OK.”

So Loeffler’s wealth, which originally gave her a campaign advantage, has become an electoral problem for her. What better way therefore to put that wealth to good political use therefore than to undertake some good old-fashioned, uncriticisable charity?

In my new book, The Good Glow: Charity and the Symbolic Power of Doing Good, I explore this phenomenon in order to understand the social role that charity plays. Because ‘doing something for charity’ is (almost) always synonymous with ‘doing good’, charity acts as a good glow around charitable individuals. Given that we automatically assume ‘No one who does stuff for charity could be evil’, that symbolic power provides a morally dubious avenue for people to take advantage of their own charity, providing benefits often worth more in symbolic times than the material wealth they’ve given away.

The role of gifts in society is a subject long studied by social scientists and philosophers. A central idea one can take from this body of work is that gift giving practically always benefits the giver as well as the recipient, with presents and gifts maintaining ‘the everyday order of social intercourse’ (Bourdieu, 1990: 99). Gifts contain multiple characteristics – ‘at the same time property and possession, a pledge and a loan, an object bought, a deposit, a mandate, a trust’ (Mauss, 2011: 22) – but also stimulate action and ructions, because return gifts are, in essence, obligatory, expected and of a similar quality or cost to the first gift. Tensions over everyday present-giving between individuals emerges from this hidden reality of gifts and kindness.

In his wonderful history of fundraising telethons in America, Paul Longmore shows how for decades private companies have used charity as a public relations exercise. Large corporations used the good glow of charities to shield themselves from corporate misdemeanours, male corporate executives going on television to hand over novelty sized cheques acting as the nation’s patriarchs, authenticating their humanity. In one example, Longmore details the travails of the US snowmobile industry, which took off in the early 1970s but saw sales fall dramatically when the number of severe injuries and deaths from the machines started to rise. In order to counter the negative press, snowmobile associations teamed up with Easterseals organisations (previously the National Society for Crippled Children), offering sponsorship, free camps and rides, and physical rehabilitation schemes: as Longmore (2016: 37) puts it ‘Easterseals offered public relations aid to a business burdened by a negative public image.’ He details how other companies, like the nursing home industry and Harley-Davidson, did similar.

The washing of corporate branding through association with charitable ends has been highlighted more recently, particularly in research examining the sponsorship of fine art exhibits or leading theatre groups by heavily criticised industries. Oil and pharmaceutical companies associate with high art in order to fulfil a role as corporate citizens; this CSR ‘artwashing’ (Evans, 2015) helps them maintain a socially acceptable public image, just as historically, J.D. Rockefeller’s use of the proceeds of Standard Oil to strengthen civil society embeds both the family and the company in the fabric of society. Naomi Klein (2001: 35) has cautioned that companies’ funding of big events helps convince the public that ‘creativity and congregation would be impossible without their generosity’, and frequently a ‘convenient way for business magnates to extend their reach over domestic and foreign populaces’ (McGoey, 2015: 4). This ‘reputation laundering’ (Giridharadas, 2018) therefore is a long-standing tactic borne of realisations about charity’s symbolic power: ironically, it has probably helped embed a certain level of reflexive cynicism about charity in the public consciousness.

This critical gaze is not to besmirch all charity. The overwhelming majority of charitable acts are done out of love, care, and altruism – the amount of positive charity and kindness we’ve seen during the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated this. Even while as a society we tend to see ourselves as increasingly individualised and isolated, you can find heart-warming stories emerging every day of people looking out for each other and donating to those in need.

And we shouldn’t expect purity in those charitable acts. It is OK to feel the warm glow of doing something good for someone else – researchers have shown giving may provide a rush of dopamine similar to the effects of taking drugs or having sex, and such benefits may keep us coming back to altruism. What we find objectionable is the operationalisation of charity as a means to avoid a larger personal loss. An electoral defeat perhaps, or a tax bill – we know that the US tax code allows the wealthiest Americans to claim almost 40 per cent back against their donations, whereas the poorest cannot claim anything back, a situation that exacerbates inequalities, both in wealth but also the funding of certain welfare services, as the poor tend to give more to services that help the poor, and the rich to those that help the rich.

The fact that charity is symbolically powerful affects a range of different issues: how charities can use their status as an effective lobbying tool; how young people worry about fakery and showing off when fundraising on social media; how charities can avoid awkward questions because they are charities; and how certain charity symbols (such as the Remembrance Poppy) can be weaponised by wearers against non-wearers. All these things happen because acts of charity provide the actor with a protective halo. Kelly Loeffler and her team know this – the use of her wealth to help her constituents, which helps take attention away from a scandal and launder her reputation with her electorate, may be a generous act, but is also as cunning a deployment of charity’s good glow as one could hope to find.

Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice, Cambridge: Polity.
Evans, M. (2015) Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts, London: Pluto Press.
Giridharadas, A. (2018) Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, London: Allen Lane.
Klein, N. (2001) No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, London: HarperCollins.
Longmore, P. (2016) Telethons: Spectacle, Disability, and the Business of Charity, New York: Oxford University Press.
Mauss, M. (2011) The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books.
McGoey, L. (2015) No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, London: Verso.


Jon Dean is Reader in Politics and Sociology at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. @jondeanstuff