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.


  • Hey Breanna,

    One element struck me when reading this (superb) piece, something that I remember from my own experience working in retail; the subject of the charitable giving and its relationship to the corporation’s primary business. I’m thinking specifically of both the Home Depot and Chapters/Indigo.

    In both cases, the corporation gave generously to specific charitable causes – the Depot to Habitat for Humanity and Chapters/Indigo to their Love of Reading Foundation. Whatever good these donations accomplished, they both served to directly enlarge the corporation’s consumer base. New homeowners from Habitat would, naturally, purchase home improvement goods and services from the Depot, and every child that the Love of Reading Foundation turns on to books is another customer for Chapters/Indigo.

    It seems to me that, at least in these two cases, the commercial benefit of the charitable giving goes beyond simply improving the image of the company in the eyes of the public. Both companies were, in fact, asking consumers to subsidize the creation of new customers, and their unwillingness to engage in charitable active in any other context made me all the more cynical about their aims.

    I don’t see how Bell could be profiting so directly from their campaign…maybe all the extra tweeting and data usage helps their bottom line somehow, but I doubt it. It’s not like they’re using the donations to purchase phones and computers for mental hospitals that then have to be Bell customers (at least, I hope not). In my mind, choosing a charitable purpose that’s so divorced from their core business is a point in their favour when judging how morally praiseworthy their efforts are.

    Best wishes,

    • There was also the problematic fact that the chapters/indigo love of reading donations were not in fact monetary donations but issues in the form of gift vouchers for only chapters indigo stores. This meant every dollar “donated” would still be spent at only chapters/indigo by the schools.

    • Hey, thanks for the read Patrick! And you are absolutely right – often “engaging new customers” or “driving traffic to a store” are among the motivations for CSR investments. Banks are a good example of this. I worked with one of the big banks on a penny drive campaign in schools a few years back. Kids collected pennies for charity and dropped them off at a branch. It drove thousands of kids and their parents into branches, where bank staff were then able to talk and engage with them in an “authentic” way. Grocery stores that host canned good drives are another one – they make you go into the store to drop off your goods, in the hopes that you will do some shopping while you’re there.

      But yes, if anything the new costumers Bell would be trying to engage through this initiative would be institutional clients. I don’t know for certain, but there may be an incentive for charities looking to Bell for funding to switch their carrier to Bell. I have definitely worked with telecoms in the past where that is the expectation – services are often offered a significantly reduced rate, but their funding was contingent on us switching service providers. From an optics point of view it makes sense, but it does feel a little icky. I doubt that is a primary driver for this particular campaign though.

      As Steve mentions below, the Chapters/Indigo one is particularly egregious, because they are collecting money from customers, but they are donating store credit. That program is particularly designed to drive teachers and librarians into stores – they are looking to lock onto the bigger clients, like School Boards and Libraries. I don’t know as much about the Home Depot relationship – I will have to do some research.

      Interesting point about picking something that is so far from their core service. Companies often like to get paired up with a charity where they can support through in-kind donations or offer expert advice – it is also easier to engage their employees if the charity is looking for the skills their employees would have. It’s an easier narrative to paint too – Home Depot building Homes makes for a nice ad campaign.

      The ones that really get me going are the top-up donations at the till – the LCBO does this all the time. They guilt thousands of customers into making small donations then they pool them together and write one big cheque to a charity. They then get a massive tax write off and did not have to donate anything themselves. The. Worst.

      Thanks for the insightful comments!

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