Americans Want To Give Back With Their Purchases–Not With Charity

Cause-based brands are both complementing and competing with more traditional nonprofits.

Supporting a cause used to be mostly about writing a donation check to a charity. But today the lines between charity and commerce are blurring as more and more shoppers buy from socially-minded companies and view their buying habits as a means of “giving back.”


The results of a new survey, conducted by socially responsible marketing consultancy Good.Must.Grow, show these trends for the second year in a row. In a poll of 1,010 Americans, the group found that about 30% consumers planned to increase their purchases from socially responsible companies in the coming year (compared to 29% last year). Meanwhile, only 18% plan to increase charitable giving in 2014, a decline from 21% in 2013.

“Americans have done about what they are capable of or willing to do as far as donations go,” says Heath Shackleford, founder of socially responsible marketing consultancy Good.Must.Grow. “As they see more opportunities for buying responsibly, they are looking at it as a way to do more without having to find more money to do it with.”

In all, 1 in 5 consumers responded that they actually prefer to give back by purchasing socially responsible products. Another 39% preferred to split their giving between charities and cause-based brands. Some people said that buying rather than giving charity was simply an easier way for them to give back regularly. A large minority, 48%, believed it was a “more effective” way to support change and make a difference.

As a result of the uptick in what Good.Must.Grow calls conscious consumerism, some non-profits and traditional charities are starting to diversify their models–say, by considering adding a social enterprise component so they aren’t only dependent on donations or grants.

One example is Against the Grain, a Nashville, Tennessee, nonprofit where Good.Must.Grow is based. The charity helps formerly incarcerated individuals find work and a second chance, and recently bought a small pizza restaurant to generate revenue that will fund their work, as well as help train clients in the program. “It’s a very small-scale example,” says Shackleford. “It just speaks to the fact that you don’t have to have a national model to do this.”

Overall, the growth of socially responsible companies is slow but steady, says Shackleford. For charities, this trend expands the pie by giving people more opportunities to support a cause. Still, he says, social enterprises will need to become more transparent and provide better education and information to consumers so they know what they are buying and feel they can trust the brand. This is especially important to capture the one-third of Americans who shop by their conscience when it’s “convenient,” according to the survey. They have good intentions, but don’t want to go out of their way or think too hard.


You can see other results from the survey in the infographic and slides above.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.