by Ramie Arian

The fact that it’s election week in the United States make this a good time for a comment on a puzzling new trend in philanthropic polling. It has suddenly become fashionable for certain non-profits to run contests, sometimes with big prizes, whose winners are determined simply (or largely) by who can garner the most online votes.

Two such contests with special bearing for the Jewish community are or have recently been afoot. One, the Jewish Federations of North America’s 2nd annual Jewish Community Heroes Campaign, will reach its culmination with the announcement of a “Hero of the Year” on November 9 at the JFNA General Assembly in New Orleans. In the JFNA contest, nominations were accepted online, and 20 semi-finalists were chosen according to who received the most votes through the Federations’ website over a polling period lasting several months. Last week, a panel of judges chose five finalists from among the top vote-getters. Presumably the candidates’ accomplishments and credentials played a part, but only at this latest stage of the judging.

A contest with a somewhat similar structure, but a much larger scale, took place over the summer. Kohl’s Department Stores, through its Kohl’s Cares program of corporate philanthropy, gave away $10 million, in honor of the philanthropic program’s 10th anniversary. The money was given – in increments of $500,000 – to the 20 schools which gathered the most votes through Kohl’s Facebook page. Individuals could cast up to 20 ballots, but only five could be cast for their own school. Why is this contest relevant to the Jewish community? Because of the 20 winning schools, 12 (a stunning 60%) are Jewish day schools, most of them affiliated Chabad.

The first elections I remember were the contests we held in grade school to elect class officers. My teachers and my parents both emphasized – and it is a value that has stayed with me ever since – that elections are not supposed to be mere popularity contest. Rather, they are supposed to be about issues, about qualifications, about who has the best sense of what needs to be done, and is best equipped to accomplish it.

Against that backdrop, these “elections” stand out as particularly quirky. Why does the ability to muster lots of internet votes qualify someone to be “Hero of the Year”? Why does a school’s ability to build an effective social media strategy merit a half-million-dollar prize? Why do the contest sponsors feel that it is worthwhile to invest the considerable resources (and in Kohl’s case, the substantial prize money) that it takes to run these seemingly empty contests?

I applaud the putative heroes who were nominated in the JFNA poll for their altruism and for their ability to mobilize a voting constituency. I stand in awe of those day schools which were able to build a strategy to outshine tens of thousands of applicant schools, especially since the polling was done during the summer (the contest ran from July 7 – September 3) when the students and their parents were least accessible. Still, my inner-cynic wonders: what’s in it for the sponsors?

This turns out not to be a difficult question to answer. JFNA is kind enough to post the answer right on its website, where it says: “Over 300,000 votes were cast for hundreds of amazing nominees… The total page views during the 2+ months of the campaign have topped 2 million… The practical benefits of pushing Heroes participation are high; last year, nearly 30,000 new contacts were passed along to the relevant geotargeted Federations after Heroes ended, and we’re amassing another similarly sized list of new 2010 contacts, which will undergo list cleaning and then be parceled out later this year.” For the Federation world, the contest creates a high-visibility, low-cost way to drive traffic to its website, and to collect tens of thousand of new contacts, each a potential future program participant and future potential donor.

For Kohl’s, the answer seems equally straightforward. The Kohl’s contest sent hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of “voters” to the Kohl’s Facebook page, about 95% of which is devoted to marketing Kohl’s stores and merchandise. I have no background in advertising, but it’s a safe bet that that would be a spectacular result for an ad campaign that might have cost far more than the $10 million Kohl’s put up in prize money. And the campaign generated lots and lots of positive publicity for the company.

The online polls are indeed quirky, and they doubtless contribute in some general way to the ongoing distortion of an appropriate sense of what an “election” should be about. But from their sponsors’ perspectives, apparently they are a clever way to get a good-sized “bang” for a modest sized “buck”.

Maybe they’re not such a bad idea, after all.

Ramie Arian (ramie [at] ramiearian dot com) is a consultant who works with non-profits, mainly in the areas of not-for-profit management, summer camps, start-ups and informal/experiential education.

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