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Ideas. Insights. Inspiration.

Anonymous Actions

What you do anonymously says a lot about you.

In my last year of high school, I decided to join the school's rugby team. It wasn't because I was an athlete by any definition of the word, or because I particularly knew much about the sport of rugby; it was because I wanted to visit Scotland.

You see, every year the team would "tour" a different destination, and that year they were planning a trip to the land of the Loch Ness Monster. Each member of the team was given the opportunity to offset the cost of their trip by approaching local businesses and asking them to buy an advertisement in a special publication meant to showcase the generosity of these sponsors. Many players fully funded their trips this way, as local businesses took advantage of the opportunity to support their local players (who were often family members), earn some goodwill, and generate a tax write-off. Win, win, win!

When my father found out about the trip and how each member of the team was supposed to fund it, he recommended I ask one of his good friends to support me by purchasing an advertisement in the team's brochure.

This particular friend founded a company many years ago, and when the company went public, he became a billionaire.

So my father and I went to visit this friend at his office. After we were greeted warmly, I approached his desk, and he very patiently listened to me as I gave "my pitch" for a full-page ad in the publication. When I finished, he smiled, pulled out his chequebook from a drawer in his desk, and wrote me a cheque for $400... the cost of a full-page ad. That may not seem like a lot, but this was almost 25 years ago, and that amount represented a full third of my trip's cost. I was elated. I thanked him profusely, and then asked... "What would you like the ad to say?"

"No, no, no..." he responded quickly. "No ad. This is anonymous, okay?"

I have no illusions that it was my impressive presentation that earned me his donation. I knew this friend was giving me the money out of respect for my father, and because he was a nice guy, and because he could easily afford to help... and I was okay with all of that. If he didn't want the ad for which he paid, well, so be it.

Today, this man remains one of Canada's wealthiest individuals. And because of my father's personal connection, I know for a fact he's given away a lot of money to fund various community initiatives. But you won't see his name on any buildings, and there aren't many public notices about his donations; he continues to give away his money anonymously to various causes he wishes to support, but he doesn't need or want the publicity that would normally accompany his actions.

I was reminded of this story -- and my father's friend -- late last week when I was on LinkedIn and saw this post from a Tim Horton's employee:

I truly applaud Tim Horton's decision to provide free coffee to the St. Michael's Hospital team, and to others on the front-lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But I wish they didn't feel the need to tell people about it.

Granted, Tim Horton's has had a few rough years -- Google it -- and they can certainly use any and all positive press they get these days.

But when you do a good deed and then immediately proceed to shout it from the rooftops, the motivation behind that good deed is naturally questioned: did you do it to be a good corporate citizen, or did you do it to earn good PR?

At the risk of sounding naive, I'd have rather seen Tim Horton's provide the free coffee and say nothing. After all, in the Age of Social Media, it's very likely that a coffee beneficiary would have shared the good deed independently, and then the goodwill earned would have been organic. Tim Horton's would have traded some certainty for some authenticity... but that's always a good trade.

If you're a good corporate citizen, you'll treat any positive press you might get from a good deed as an unexpected bonus, not a factor in determining whether or not you do it.

If the reason you're doing something good is primarily because it will make you look good, then that's not being a good corporate citizen... it's good public relations. There's absolutely nothing wrong with generating positive PR.

It's just important to know the difference.

- dp

PS. To be clear, I didn't write this post to pick on Timmy's; they're certainly not the only company guilty of trumpeting their good deeds, and I most certainly would rather them give away free coffee to front-line workers than do nothing. They just happen to be the example that sparked the idea for this post.


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