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


Edit Your Comment

  1. krucoff says:

    The Times followed up with a story about this on Sunday. It’s ridiculous, the P&G project should be banned. AMEX is just asking for a shitload of bad publicity on this one. I hope they shell out another $5 million to the runner-up if P&G wins.

    BTW, his name is Allgood?? I demand an investigation into THAT!

  2. rbb says:

    Should P&G be disqualified? NO, not if they are in compliance with the rules as written when the project was entered.

    If P&G was an individual and had fairly entered a contest according to the rules, would the consumerist defend that person when the company changed the rules to unfairly disqualify that person? I think we know that answer…

    So to recap, if P&G entered the contest fairly and complied with the rules at the time of entry, what justification do you have to tell the company to rewrite the rules to eliminate P&G?

  3. ArtDonovansDrunkenLovechild says:

    Sounds like a good cause, and if Unicef gets the oversight on the funds then no harm no foul..

  4. FatLynn says:

    A project administered by a well-run corporation, regardless of profit motive, has the potential for a much larger impact than one run by a crappy non-for-profit, or, worse yet, the government.

  5. Aaron Pratt says:

    Let me get this straight… you’re asking if this project should be disqualified even though they followed all the rules and it’s a good project that will help a lot of people? Because P&G stands to make money?

    I hate to break it to you, but non-profits make a lot of money for a lot of people. There are other individuals and/or corporations that stand to make money should someone else win the prize. If “Plant a Million Trees” wins, do you think they’ll just use the money to buy a million trees? Nope. Their proposal says they’ll use the money for local cash grants to promote reforestation. That could mean paying employees of an organization that coordinate planting; it could mean payment to a larger company that does landscaping; it could mean money in the pockets of lobbyists discouraging deforestation.

    The Wind and Solar project says it would work with “national laboratory researchers, appropriate manufacturers and system integrators.” Could those be individuals and corporations that stand to make money should they be awarded the grant, too?

  6. CreativeLinks says:

    I have worked with P&G in the past, and I just want to point out they are exceptional corporate citizens for those of us here in Cincinnati.

    They are always willing to donate funds, provides goods, etc to hundreds of organizations here in the city.

    So if they win, more power to them. The prize money would be in good hands.

  7. krucoff says:

    Corporate apologists. Are you people for real? Yes, they are ALL good causes and they all deserve $5 million, if not $5 billion! But who should be paying the bill? And don’t give me “following the rules” when the rules were rigged (like they always are against the disadvantaged) in the first place. This isn’t about jobs or where the money goes.

    The huge honking question is: Why does P&G need a $5 million handout from AMEX? Are you people that sucked into corporacy (I made that up but that’s exactly what it is) that you actually think nothing is wrong here? Unbelievable. Please do a little research before speaking without knowledge. The other contestants do NOT have a HUGE corporate backer with millions, if not billions of dollars at their disposal. P&G is an excellent position to fund its own clean water project and every other one on the list! The *real* non-profits, those poor little mismanaged institutions as you say, are not so fortunate.

    I won’t go into how big corporations, especially P&G, are the root cause of many of the world’s problems (oooh, evils of capitalism and shit!) that in turn need to be funded by us, because I think that might be a little too “big picture” for some of you.

  8. If P&G followed the rules they can’t and shouldn’t be banned. UNICEF is the organization getting the money. Helping them buy the purification technology isn’t a bad thing. However…

    Many Amex members may have understood the contest to be for organizations that would otherwise be unable to get this kind of money. At least that’s what the TV ad made it sound like to me: smaller or less popular causes as opposed to something like AIDS and poverty. However, Aaron Pratt‘s examples make it sound like that’s not the case anyway.

  9. JayThree says:

    This story seems more in the anti-corporate realm rather than the pro-consumer side which I assumed was the mission of the site.

  10. allstarecho says:

    Considering the goal of this contest – helping people out – I could care less who wins. People are getting helped.

  11. ancientsociety says:

    @krucoff: Agreed

  12. ancientsociety says:

    “The huge honking question is: Why does P&G need a $5 million handout from AMEX?…The other contestants do NOT have a HUGE corporate backer with millions, if not billions of dollars at their disposal. P&G is an excellent position to fund its own clean water project..”

  13. shoegazer says:

    Disclosure – I am a former P&G employee, though I never worked on the R&D and water purification business units.

    Should P&G be disqualified? Amex have said that they did not break any rules and that “Pur” and the P&G name are not being used in this contest; also that UNICEF will have oversight over the project. Let’s set aside the fact that I believe UNICEF to be ten times as corrupt as P&G could ever be (and those of you who have experience with both organizations, know this to be true). I find it hard to believe both initiatives would sit comfortable beside each other, or that the Amex project would somehow invent a better methodology than the one already being trumpeted by the CSDW.
    Sure, people are being helped – but the whole point of this contest is to provide Amex members with an opportunity to do good with their card fees. Having one corporation hijack another’s CSR initiative means one less outreach program. This is incestuous, and very disturbing.
    If Amex were a government would we find this sort of behavior from a corporation acceptable? Of course not. The fact that members vote on the outcome is hardly a mitigating factor – P&G are one of the largest corporate Amex clients, so it’s likely the P&Gers (or Proctoids) are the ones buoying up “Greg”‘s project.
    Sorry, but P&G should put up the $5M themselves and leave Amex to pony up cash for something equally worthwhile.

  14. TechnoDestructo says:

    Sure, P&G would do some good here, and sure, there might not be any material abuse of this, but they are still getting something for nothing. They get their name all over a high-profile charitable project, at someone else’s expense.

    It’s like supermarkets sponsoring canned food drives. All they provide is a location to drop stuff off, and most of the food is stuff that they’re making a profit on. But it’s still the “Basha’s canned food drive.” They get all the PR benefit with none of the cost…or even make a profit on it.

    Is it fundamentally a bad thing? No. But is it kind of crass to use someone else’s charity to build your own good name?

  15. TechnoDestructo says:


    Matching Amex’s donation would be enough for me to be cool with it.

  16. juri squared says:

    I don’t think AMEX is TECHNICALLY in the wrong for allowing it, nor is P&G in the wrong for entering. But it’s pretty shitty of both of them, especially because the PR for this contest promoted the idea that ordinary people would make a difference, as opposed to one billion-dollar corporation giving money to another one.

    Bad form, both of them.

  17. JeffK. says:

    Nitpicking: It’s ProctEr and Gamble.

  18. alk509 says:

    (Psst! Consumerist! That’s Procter and Gamble…)

  19. The Bigger Unit says:

    @JayThree: Funny, I thought since I’m an Amex cardholder (a consumer), and I could be eligible to enter the contest if I chose, it would be a consumer-based story with anti-corporate tinges as well.

    It’s a story about a large company stomping out the little consumer for this Amex project. What’s the problem?

  20. The Unusual Suspect says:

    Isn’t the point here that P&G is somehow gaming the system from the inside? If they won fair and square on ordinary Amex user votes and played by the rules, I’d have no problem with it, but it has been suggested that P&G employees (of which there are thousands and thousands to be mobilized) are voting en masse, and that P&G changed the wording on the corporate site from “P&G’s project…” to “P&G Employee’s idea…” which seems a disingenuous move.

  21. krucoff says:

    @JayThree: Divorcing the anti-corporate realm from the pro-consumer one? The inability to connect the dots is frightening.

  22. Aaron Pratt says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation: I really should clarify that I’m not saying that any of these are bad causes or that I believe any of these companies are gaming the system. My point is that individuals and corporations make money off of altruistic, non-profit causes, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

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