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Streaming for Good: Online Video Companies Are Feeling Charitable

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Is the online video industry making the world a better place? Considering that it created the phenomenon of binge watching, I wonder.

Talking to a 20-something ad buyer at a recent industry event, I asked him what was the most hour-long episodes of a program he’d ever watched in one sitting. Five, he said. That’s 5 hours straight. He admitted he often builds his weekends around must-watch shows.

That’s what streaming video is doing. So besides helping our nation become large and lethargic, what good is coming from all this?

To get an idea, I made a list of 20 prominent online video companies that represent different parts of the industry, then asked their press contacts if their companies did anything charitable—and, if so, what?

Of those 20, 10 got back to me and told me about their charitable works, while one responded that the organization didn’t do charity, but managers were considering it. I can only conclude that the other nine hate charity and probably kick puppies.

Reading through the 10 positive responses, I was impressed. I expected to get lists of big-money corporate donations, but that wasn’t the case. Online video companies prefer charities that make a connection with the people being helped, and they like to mobilize their workforces. Charities that empower women and girls seem hot right now, as do causes involving education and technology. A couple of the respondents mentioned working with Girls Who Code.

Helping less-developed nations is popular, and many programs involve getting food to the hungry, either at home or abroad.

I learned that corporate charity isn’t all about big checks. Programs that allow employees to use paid time to help nonprofits are popular. Companies that offer them report participation growing every year.

Some companies adopt a pet project and have the whole team pitch in. They might provide relief to a remote village, or help a home for the needy in their town. Many companies match employee donations, but that wasn’t as common as I would have guessed.

While some charitable causes are popular, others aren’t. Causes that target diseases, or support the arts or the troops, were surprisingly uncommon.

For perspective, I turned to a specialist in corporate charity. Melanie Ulle is the CEO of Philanthropy Expert, LLC, a firm that helps companies make the most of their charitable works.

What’s the best standard to use for judging company charity efforts? “There isn’t one clear standard for the efficacy of corporate philanthropy programs,” Ulle says. “In my experience, I find that the best corporate philanthropy programs give employees the freedom to invest in their own pet causes and help support them through matching grants or volunteer hours, or ‘dollars for doing’.” The least effective programs, she adds, are dictated from the top, with company leaders directing where money will go.

How is the online video industry doing when it comes to charity? “There isn’t much chatter in philanthropic circles about the corporate giving in the online video space,” Ulle says. “However, I believe that it was a great sign of leadership on a personal level when Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, signed Warren Buffet’s giving pledge. This promise to give half of his money away shows a real commitment to community and great role modeling for other leaders in the space.”

One way the industry could do more, she suggests, is by giving broadcast time to messages from worthwhile organizations. “For instance, giving free airtime to a veteran’s organization to encourage businesses to hire our nation’s finest, or encouraging turning off lights, or even eating dinner with one’s kids at night. These simple kinds of messages might make people pause before binging on 10 hours of Breaking Bad.”

Let’s get going with those public service announcements. It’s going to take a lot of good will to cancel out all that binge watching.

[This article appears in the June 2017 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Online Video Companies Get Into a Charitable Mood."]

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