More on muddied messages

Peter
Peter Jackson
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I don’t like corporate philanthropy. I’m particularly down on those that fund health initiatives — especially children’s health.

At least, that’s the impression you’d get if you read a letter to the editor last week by Gerry Beresford (“The value of corporate involvement,” Dec. 3).

Beresford is chairman of the board for the soon-to-be-opened Ronald McDonald House in St. John’s. These facilities, named after the famous fast-food mascot, provide accommodation to out-of-town families of sick children who have to be in hospital.

I wish Mr. Beresford and his board well in their campaign to get this valuable facility up and running next year. They need all the funding and support they can get.

Nonetheless, he seems to think I’m oblivious to the trials of ailing children and families in this province. He garnered this notion after reading my Nov. 23 column titled “Sending the wrong message.” In that column, I focused on the phenomenon of purveyors of unhealthy products polishing their images by contributing to health charities. And I made a passing reference to the Ronald McDonald House initiative.

In his letter, Beresford said I chose to “take aim at corporations who decide to give willingly to help charities like ours.”

This is a mischaracterization.

Taking aim

I specifically took aim at those corporations whose profits largely come from selling something antithetical to good health. As I stated in my column, I have no problem in general with the concept of corporate donation and private-public partnerships.

I also stated that Beresford’s cause — raising money for such a facility — is a worthy one. And, by his own admission, the local Ronald McDonald House will be built primarily by the board’s own fundraising efforts. Of the $6.2 million needed to complete it, only $1.3 million is being funded directly by McDonald’s Restaurants.

My problem is the name, and what it’s associated with.

Back in the day, Ronald McDonald may have been a wholesome icon for children. The burger palace was a happy place where the sun always shone and the smiling clown painted magic arches in the air.

That image is changing. The chain now offers healthier choices, and the marketing is geared more towards an easy-going, part-of-the-neighbourhood appeal.

But it’s still a burger joint. And, like any similar chain, its success stems primarily from overindulging people’s craving for fat, salt and sugar.

Sick kids. Unhealthy food. It’s not the right match.

Speaking of the Nov. 23 column, I received an email from Angela Wall, communications manager for Breast Cancer Action (BCA) in San Francisco.

The organization aims to foster awareness of companies whose involvement in breast cancer fundraising is hypocritical. They do so with such campaigns as Think Before You Pink, which challenges customers to ask questions before they accept a company’s fundraising campaign.

Wall wanted to point out it was BCA that initiated a campaign last spring called “What the Cluck?” in response to a program by KFC to donate part of its sales of chicken to a breast cancer charity. (I had incorrectly attributed the campaign to another source.)

I asked Wall whether she gets similar responses to BCA initiatives as I did to my column.

“I hear the ‘who cares who donates’ comment all the time,” she replied.

“But the reality with breast cancer is it does make a difference when we pause to consider what it is we are trying to accomplish with the money we raise.”

She said if the aim of donating money is to end breast cancer, then you can’t have a company donating to the cause on one hand and contributing to the problem on the other.

“In the case of KFC, there were a number of problems — the use of growth hormones in the chicken, to name but one,” Wall said.

“Additionally, KFCs are located primarily in underserved, poorer communities where access to health care and healthy living are leading factors contributing to health inequities in these communities.”

That last observation is perhaps more valid in the U.S. than in Canada. But her overall point is still sound, in my view.

If Gerry Beresford’s letter illustrates anything, it’s that unqualified gratitude has become the norm in a world where money not only talks, but increasingly renders everyone mute.

That is particularly disheartening in the field of health care, where corporate donations can sometimes amount to a form of emotional blackmail.

I don’t blame fundraisers for curbing their tongues when the end seems to justify the means. But there is always a risk of tarnishing the cause when the message gets lost in hypocrisy.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor.

He can be contacted by email at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Ronald McDonald House, San Francisco.The organization

Geographic location: U.S., Canada

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