Has Procter & Gamble Hijacked Amex's $5 Million Members Project?

Accusations are flying that Proctor and Gamble has hijacked Amex’s “Member’s Project,” in an attempt to sell water purifying technology. The project is a contest in which Amex will fund one charitable project (proposed by its members) to the tune of $5 million dollars.

It seems that this offer was attractive to Procter and Gamble, because they’ve entered one of their charitable programs (which relies on their water purifying technology to provide safe drinking water to children) into the contest. And it looks like they may win.

Amex claims that the entry is legit because although the idea was entered by a Proctor and Gamble employee (who, by the way, is the director of the program), the “fulfilling organization” will be UNICEF. Ostensibly, UNICEF could then choose not to purchase the water purification technology from P&G, however unlikely that would be. From the Member’s Project Website:

This project idea was submitted by a Cardmember who is employed at Proctor & Gamble, but the project idea Cardmembers are voting on is not the P&G’s clean water program with PSI (Population Services International). American Express has selected UNICEF as the organization that will fulfill and bring the project idea to life. If this project wins, UNICEF will receive the final award money and make the decision about what technologies and purifiers they will use to clean water.

Any Cardmember was able to submit a project idea regardless of his or her affiliation with a for profit corporation or a non profit organization. Many project ideas were submitted by individuals with such affiliations. Decisions about which fulfilling organizations will bring the project ideas to life were made by American Express, not by the Cardmembers who proposed the project ideas.

Although Amex says the project is different from P&G’s already in existence “Child Safe Drinking Water” project, which, according to USA Today uses Pur brand water filters to reduce water-borne illnesses, most of the evidence says its not. Here’s a description of the project from USAToday from August 2, 2005:

Procter & Gamble is in the midst of making the world’s clean-water crisis its primary philanthropic mission, using its Pur-brand household water-purification system. It reported last week that a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that a system such as Pur is effective in cutting death rates from water-borne illnesses.

P&G, too, is keeping an eye on its bottom line while doing good. “It’s a cause-related issue, but we’ll also learn things about low-income consumers that are going to help P&G overall,” says Greg Allgood, P&G’s director for children’s safe drinking water.

Greg is the Amex “Member” who submitted his “idea.” Child Safe Drinking water is also mentioned in Proctor & Gamble’s annual report, on page 69.

And what is the motive of the Child Safe Drinking water project? According to the New York Times, P&G will sell its various water purification products in the US, and use the profits to distribute more of its product overseas. This information won’t be noted on the product’s packages. Why? From the NYT:

The packages could note that profits will go to Population Services International, the nonprofit group that actually handles the distribution of Pur overseas, but that is not a well-known name. “We don’t think it would be understandable to consumers,” Mr. Allgood said.

Procter is also traveling incognito in the American Express Member’s Project, a Web-based initiative that encourages people to submit ideas for solving a societal problem. American Express cardholders vote for their favorites, and American Express will award up to $5 million for the winning idea.

Mr. Allgood entered the science and theory behind the Children’s Safe Drinking Water program. But he said that the Member Project’s rules precluded him from naming it, or mentioning Pur or Procter.

Now Amex members and the other projects in the contest are fuming mad because, well, they’re going to lose to a billion dollar company.

Procter & Gamble’s project has a fairly significant lead in the voting, which closes on August 7th.

Is Procter & Gamble (or the P&G employee) doing something wrong by entering its products in the contest? Here’s the Child Safe Drinking Water blog, which clearly shows P&G’s logo, but is presented as if the project is somewhat less significantly funded than one might imagine. After all, P&G calls “Children’s Safe Drinking Water” their “global signature program,” and according to the Times funds the project through sales of their products to US consumers. For comparison’s sake, here’s what “Children’s Safe Drinking Water’s” actual official site looks like.

So it’s probably not hurting for cash. Then again, we find it hard to take what amounts to a gigantic PR clusterf*ck for Amex too seriously. If people are voting for children to get drinking water, and the children will get the drinking water…

What do the Consumerists think? Should P&G’s project be disqualified in favor of projects from non-profit organizations?

Children’s Safe Drinking Water Official Site
Amex Member’s Project
A Reverse Profit Strategy Faces a Commercial Test [NYT]
Starbucks takes up cause for safe drinking water [USA Today]
Children’s Safe Drinking Water Blog

Member’s Project Thread Full of Angry Amex Members