Altruism or Astroturfing?

I’m always amazed and humbled by how quickly the international Jewish community responds to crises around the world. In the past few hours, I’ve been flooded with information on relief funds setup by various Jewish organizations, including my own, to respond to the disastrous earthquake in Haiti – a place with the tiniest of Jewish communities. This is a true demonstration of altruism.

And isn’t email is great? What we take for granted each day really is a technological marvel that allows unprecedented amounts of aid dollars flow to areas of need in a matter of minutes, courtesy of the organizations that are empowered to do so.

To ensure that these organizations’ aid initiatives are seen as being truly altruistic, and not just a way to keep up with the pack, careful attention needs to be paid to the press releases announcing them. Graphics can’t be too graphic, text can’t be over the top, and the message needs to be carefully crafted to encourage people to donate. There’s a fine line between creating a powerful message and sensationalism. Any good marketing professional knows this.

It appears, though, that B’nai Brith Canada still doesn’t quite understand the basic elements of word choice. Joe Bogoroch, President of B’nai Brith Canada, should have opened up a dictionary (or how about wikipedia?) before sending out their press release email today. In their call for people to send in funds, he used the following text:

“We call on members of the community to once again show their generosity and donate as much as they can afford to the victims of the quake. We hope that our grassroots (my emphasis added) effort will provide some measure of comfort, dignity and normalcy to the victims whose lives have been torn apart.”

This is not the first time B’nai Brith has abused the concept of grassroots efforts. See here for more on that. Yup, that was astroturfing again!

To be sure, their effort in getting out a message for people to donate is supremely important and commendable. But make no mistake, this is not a grassroots effort. This is a top-down organized initiative from a well entrenched member of the Jewish establishment in Canada. Why add a highly political element to an initiative that should be apolitical? Why call it grassroots at all?

My guess is that Bogoroch and B’nai Brith hope that this singular word will make their organization appear more attractive, more attuned to the lives of younger Jews, and more folksy. Perhaps for those that don’t understand the concept, it does. But for most, it’s clear that this a fallacy. In essence, by using this word, B’nai Brith subtly puts their organization’s image ahead of the aid efforts.

UJA Federation, on the other hand – the supreme example of the Jewish establishment, crafted a powerful and well worded press release. And they got it out forty minutes before B’nai Brith did. It includes about five quick sentences that succinctly let us know what’s up. An excerpt:

“As the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, Haiti is simply not prepared to handle such a catastrophe and the Caribbean nation is appealing for international aid.

United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto has established the Haiti Disaster Relief Fund to assist victims who, suddenly, find their lives turned upside down and in jeopardy.”

Their webpage also thanks people for their “ongoing commitment to tikun olam, ‘Repairing the World’.” Nicely done, UJA. In just three sentences, we know why this is important, what UJA wants us to do, and how it’s a Jewish concept. It doesn’t sound like they’re trying to get us to join up with them. They just want to donate some money.

Ok folks, let’s just get it out there: Jewish organizations like B’nai Brith and Federation, while becoming increasingly out of touch with the zeitgeist of this generation, are still uniquely positioned to do some real good when crises like the Haitian earthquake arise. They have a vast, connected membership, with the funds and mechanisms to reach out to them. Why not get it right? Why not take the (brief) time to craft your message properly to maximize its ability to connect to people? Sadly, this is an endemic problem in the Jewish community.

If the legacy organizations want to remain relevant over the next twenty years, perhaps a quick and easy step in that direction would be to step back and look at the framework from which they speak…


  1. Mordechai says:

    Actually I quite liked the CJC release which was the only one picked up internationally. It was quoted in full by both Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post and mentioned in the International Herald Tribune.

    The letter to the Haitian Charges D’affaires was elegant to say the least

    1. jepaikin says:

      Mordechai, I didn’t receive the CJC release yesterday, though I just took a look at it now. It is, quite appropriate – brief, yet eloquent, and highlighting the Jewish and human imperative to help.

      Do you have the links to the JPost and IHT coverage?

  2. Jeremy says:

    Mr. Paikin, thank you for your insight. Local response and support to the crisis in Haiti has continued to pour in. It is a true reflection on the compassion and strength of the Toronto Jewish Community.

    As of this morning the United Jewish Appeal Haiti fund has raised over $87,000.

  3. The Hebrew Hammer says:

    Jesse, your writing is excellent but your thought frame is fundamentally wrong. You are foolish to think that this fundraising efforts / marketing campaign appeal to an altruistic political scheme by those behind the scenes of the fundraising efforts. I respect your opinion but have to disagree. The words written by B’nai Brith in support of the Haiti fund were eloquent and very well articulated. I believe the choice to use the word ‘grassroots’ was more of a marketing effort than an example of an intrinsic political movement. Though I can appreciate where you are coming from, I think you are taking this a little too far and really just like to hear yourself speak. I wish you best of luck with your publication but I can assure you taking stabs a local and national fundraising efforts is not going to further your cause.

    Good luck Jesse. You will need it.

    1. Jesse says:

      Hi Hebrew Hammer,

      First: I apologize for the delay in responding, as I’ve been out of the country the past few weeks.

      Second: Thank you for taking the time to comment on an article I wrote two and a half years ago. I’m pleasantly surprised it continues to resonate with people – even if in a negative way. It’s nice to know one’s words – no matter how ultimately insignificant they may be – have lasting power.

      Third: You strike an arrogant and sarcastic tone throughout your response to my post, which ultimately amounts to an ad hominem attack by you on what you think are my motives in writing (that I apparently “just like to hear [my]self speak”). As such, I should probably just have ignored responding to you in the first place, but you dug up some old bones here, so let’s continue, shall we?

      Fourth: Let’s address the little constructive response you had to my argument. At no point did I ever argue that B’nai Brith’s or Federation’s or the CJC’s efforts were part of “an altruistic political scheme.” My original post, along with others on the same theme, called out B’nai Brith Canada for labeling itself and its efforts as ‘grassroots.’ I think here and elsewhere I’ve done a pretty good job at proving why that’s balderdash. If you want to take the time to argue why B’nai Brith can legitimately call itself a grassroots organization, by all means, I welcome your response. For now, the burden of proof is on you.

      You write that you “believe the choice to use the word ‘grassroots’ was more of a marketing effort than an example of an intrinsic political movement.” I wholeheartedly agree that using the word ‘grassroots’ was a marketing decision. And it was a dishonest one at that. Which is what prompted my original post. See above for more on that.

      Fifth: You close by (sarcastically? smugly? honestly?) wishing me luck and warning me about the hazards to furthering my “cause.” I’m not sure what cause I’ve ever said I have. I certainly don’t think I have one, aside from occasionally calling out others on their BS. Perhaps you should take a look at the “Disclaimer” that appears at the top of my blog, which states: “This blog is a work in progress. I try and write about things that I think are interesting not only to myself, but to others as well. Call me out on things that don’t make sense.”

      Instead of your sanctimonious response to my two and a half year old blog post, why didn’t you just accept my invitation to call me out on whatever you think doesn’t make sense, and we could have had a civil discussion/argument over the facts?

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