The Ethics of Not-For-Profit Organizations Capitalizing on Small Business Saturday
I wasn’t going to write a post about this so I did a short blurb on Facebook (you can read the post and the excellent comments even if you don’t have Facebook). But the conversation was very enlightening and I have decided to do a post.
On Saturday, American Express sponsored Small Business Saturday (SBS). To help promote small businesses (and their brand) AMEX offered a $25 credit to anyone who used a registered AMEX card at a participating small business.
Many schools and charity organizations urged their supporters to register and donate $25 using their AMEX. This would give the institution a $25 (minus fees) donation and the donor would recoup the $25 from AMEX. So in essence it was a free $25 for the institution. Sounds like a win / win.
On its face, the participation of charities and religious institutions seems like it could be an issue. The concept here is to promote small business with purchases. “Spending $25” at a shul or school simply for the sake of a donation is not within the spirit of the promotion. But reasonable people could argue this point.
The problem is that SBS has rules. The rules state:
The Program is only available to qualifying small businesses. For the purpose of this Program, qualifying small businesses include small, locally-owned storefront and online businesses with $10 million in annual revenue or less. Businesses in the following industries are excluded: government agencies, charities, non-profits, trade associations, shopping property management firms, political, religious and educational organizations.
It seems pretty clear that shuls, yeshivas, tzedaka organizations, and any other frum (or not frum) Not-For-Profit would not be eligible to participate in SBS. (And by the way, we were able to find a few Churches that asked for $25 donations on SBS).
But things are not so simple.
First of all, AMEX knows which vendors are NFPs or religious institutions. Yet, they accept SBS submissions from these vendors. This seems to be in defiance of their own rules. Further, at least a few institutions contacted AMEX and asked if they were in fact eligible for SBS and AMEX told them that they were eligible! Once again, AMEX defied their own rules. Complicating things even worse is the fact that AMEX told several other institutions that they were not eligible for SBS.
Turns out, AMEX has no idea what they are doing. Different organizations were told different things and they don’t even know their own rules. So what’s the verdict?
Here is what I think. If you asked AMEX and they said your organization is not eligible, there is no question that you should not be participating. Yes, that is even if they will accept your charges. Taking advantage of their mistake when you know that they are making a mistake is unethical. Sure, “taus akum” is permissible. But that doesn’t mean you should take advantage. And it might only apply after the mistake happened, but to knowingly take advantage of a mistake is different.
If you asked AMEX and they said your organization is eligible and you did not know that their own rules said that your organization was not eligible, I have no problem with your organization participating in SBS. I don’t love it, but it’s hard for me to complain.
If you asked AMEX and they said your organization is eligible and you did know that their own rules said that your organization was not eligible, I think you should still refrain from participating in SBS. While it is true that someone at AMEX told you that you could participate, you knew that you could not participate. It seems difficult for me to sign off on that. Just because a call-center agent doesn’t know AMEX’s rules doesn’t exonerate you from following those rules. Imagine one idiot police officer told you that you could drive 80 in a clearly marked 55 MPH zone and another officer pulls you over for speeding. You’re not going to be able to blame it on the first officer. You’re going to get a citation. It’s not the exact same thing, but it’s close.
If you didn’t ask AMEX if your organization could participate I think you might think that ignorance is bliss. But it’s not. If you are going to participate in a promotion like this, especially one that involves free money, you need to do your due diligence. You need to make sure you can participate. If you didn’t even care to look into it, I find that problematic.
I hope that at the very least, AMEX will clarify their position for SBS 2013 and the halachically conscious public will be sure to ascertain their eligibility before spamming their supporters to “spend $25” on a donation to their institution.