A closer look at one of Canada’s, if not largest then certainly loudest, corporate giving campaigns
Today is “Bell Let’s Talk Day.” A day ostensibly designed to help break the stigma surrounding mental health by encouraging Canadians to tweet, text and generally talk about Mental Health.
My social media feeds this morning are split into three categories:
- About half are retweeting #BellLetsTalk, changing their profile picture, and to some degree engaging with the campaign in a positive way.
- Around a quarter are actively dismissive, skeptical or downright angry with what they perceive to be a hollow attempt by one of Canada’s largest and most profitable corporations to leverage the genuine struggles of individuals for profit.
- The rest are not engaged at all.
So is Bell Let’s Talk a good thing?
I have spent the past five years working in the Canadian Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) world. I have helped big companies pour millions of dollars into local and international causes. Let’s talk about motivation for a moment.
Sometimes companies give purely for the sake of marketing – the money is literally coming from their marketing budget. Research shows that consumers – particularly millennials – are more likely to let a company’s philanthropic commitments impact their consumption habits. It is smart business to be seen doing good.
Sometimes it is a passion project for an organization’s senior leadership – perhaps a CEO has a partner who lives with MS or maybe they lost a child to cancer. Companies may choose to invest in say a hospital or research projects for purely philanthropic purposes, with very little care given to the public perception of this giving. This happens more than I think most people believe.
Sometimes it has to do with employee or stakeholder engagement. Perhaps a company finds that their employees are particularly passionate about their local environment or the United Way, and therefore chooses to support that cause. Companies that have strong employee engagement programs that allow their team to give back in a meaningful way through work have in general, higher employee satisfaction and retention rates. This is a common reason for companies to give.
For most companies, it is a mix of these three reasons. It is wholly possible for an initiative to be genuinely philanthropic and impactful while also improving a company’s bottom line. These are not mutually exclusive end goals.
So Let’s Talk about Bell
It is understandable to roll your eyes when you see a company giving on a “per tweet”- style basis. It feels shallow and icky, like an obvious ploy to get more followers while not really doing anything meaningful – if the company genuinely cared, why would they limit the amount of money they donate to a cause based on public engagement? And while it is easy to malign a Canadian telecom company for a lack of transparency and empathy, digging deeper into Bell’s financial commitment to mental health reveals more good than one might at first assume.
Allegedly, the goal of today is to address stigma – to shine a light on the preconceived notions and prejudices surrounding mental health and those who live with mental health challenges.
The data shows that Canadian opinions about mental health have shifted. A 2015 Nielsen Consumer Insights survey showed that in the five years since Bell had launched their campaign, 81% of Canadian adults polled felt more knowledgeable about mental health than they did in 2010. 57% believe the stigma associated with mental health has been reduced in that time period. These numbers are even greater when you look at youth respondents.
Obviously we cannot tie a direct causal link between Bell’s Let’s Talk Campaign and improved public understanding of mental health. In that same time period however, Bell also invested over $50 million in mental health research and programs. This includes multiple $1,000,000+ grants to research hospitals and universities, $10 million to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, as well as literally hundreds of smaller (under $25,000) grants to community organizations across the country working to deliver mental health services.
There are a lot of reasons to be frustrated with Bell Canada. As a very much former customer, I could name a few for you. But their investment in mental health research and care – regardless of whether it comes from a place of pure marketing, pure philanthropy, or more likely a combination of both – has been significant.
If you are tweeting or texting today to raise awareness and share your story, that’s wonderful – more power to you.
If you are tweeting or texting today because you think it will mean more money donated to mental health causes, I wouldn’t waste my time – Bell is making those investments regardless of how many people tweet or text today.
If you are shouting into your social media feed because you think Bell is exploiting those living with mental illness for profit, I might recommend you put down your figurative megaphone and find something else to worry about. There are far worse cases of shallow, exploitative CSR out there.
At the end of the day, regardless of motivation, encouraging Canadians to talk about mental health in a constructive manner is a good thing. $80 million to date invested in research and programs to support those living with mental health challenges is even better. Does any of it make me want to change my internet provider? Absolutely not. But credit where credit is due – kudos to Bell for making a difference.