Who's Behind Arby's $2M Gift to 'No Hungry Kid,' Santa or The Grinch?

The Arby's Foundation, the giving arm of Arby's Restaurant Group, the second largest sandwich shop chain in the United States, did something last week that rivals the good deeds of Santa Claus himself. It gave Share Our Strength's (SOS) No Kid Hungry campaign $2 million dolllars.

Arby's customers kicked in most of it. $1.7 million to be exact. The Arby's Foundation rounded it up to $2 million with a $300,000 gift.

Arby's campaign for SOS was impressive - and not just because it doubled its initial pledge of one million dollars.

In addition to the national fundraiser in-store and online, Arby’s hosted a Foursquare challenge, donating $1 for every “check-in” at its restaurants nationwide. On Facebook and Twitter, Arby’s provided a meter allowing fans to monitor their fundraising success. Arby’s employees chipped in as well, participating in a series of events, including Bag Hunger Day to champion the cause.

A model campaign for sure. Successful, lucrative, lots of involvement for stakeholders, a digital component. I love it.

But there's a nagging question for me. Should Share Our Strength, a national leader in anti-hunger programs, have a partnerhip with a fast food chain that sells mostly anti-nutritional foods that should be served to families with a side of Lipitor?

Is this cause marketing program really The Grinch dressed up like Santa?

Don't get me wrong. I want to like this campaign.

  • Unlike the dreaded Buckets for the Cure in 2010and, this past year, KFC's crazy soda promotion for JDRF, this cause marketing promotion wasn't connected to any menu items. Not having to buy a bucket of greasy, fattening chicken to make a donation makes this program a little more tolerable. But we can say with certainty that most of Arby's guests aren't donating when they're ordering salads and water.
  • Unlike Buckets, this campaign wasn't heavily promoted. I only first heard of it last week, probably because I don't eat at  Arby's. Buckets had more paid advertising, including this TV ad. KFC used the Buckets campaign to attract new customers. Arby's campaign is for existing customers. I've made this point before about a White Castle cause marketing promotion created specifically for fans of the chain.
  • Arby's has made improvements to its menu, especially to its kids menu. One thing I hated about Buckets was that KFC/Komen seemed to be thumbing its nose at people by serving some of their worst foods in pink buckets that supported a health cause. Not to mention KFC launched the heart-stopping Double Down alongside Buckets. Kudos to Arby's for a showing a semblance of sincerity.

There's another reason I like this campaign: I'm an unabashed fan of SOS and its founder Billy Shore. Shore's first book, Revolution of the Heart, had a big influence on me and sits right beside Emerson, Seneca, Lincoln and Thoreau (okay, and my biography on P. T. Barnum) on my bookshelf.

I even included SOS'a cause marketing - some of the best in the industry - in my own book, Cause Marketing for Dummies.

SOS is nothing if not consistent. They've accepted money and product from ConAgra and Tyson, two other food companies often criticized for their health and environmental issues.

Of course, it's hard to be a big company and NOT be a lightening rod for controversy (e.g. Walmart, Starbucks, McDonald's, Nike). It begs the question: if a nonprofit didn't accept money from companies with questionable practices, would there be any companies left to work with? The same could be said of gifts from individuals.

SOS has made its choice and makes no apologies.

It funds Cooking Matters, a program that shows families how to prepare healthy meals, with money from ConAgra.

SOS is also set on growing its partnerships with the fast food industry. It's currently recruiting for a Senior Manager of Restaurant Partnerships to "Build Share Our Strength's restaurant multi-unit partnerships through extensive business development and creative and entrepreneurial approaches, leading to growth of revenue sources for the organization for the child hunger strategy."

When SOS says "multi-unit partnerships" and sets a $3 million goal, it's not talking about working with vegan restaurants.

Despite some reservations, I give the SOS/Arby's cause marketing promotion a passing grade. It's like the fertilizer I add to my gardens in the spring. I hold my nose, but it serves the greater good. I'm hopeful that SOS's long term involvement with Arby's will produce more good things in the chain's menu. I sleep better at night knowing that SOS and Billy Shore are in the world.

What do you think? Should gifts from fast food restaurant chains such as Arby's be marked "return to sender"?