February 7, 2008 —
In early 2007, the rock singer Bono teamed up with AIDS activists and veterans of the non-profit sector to found a whole new approach in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Project (RED) wouldn't provide services like an NGO or round up large contributions from businesses, endowments and wealthy philanthropists, but would instead be a business itself. Red licenses its name to companies, who in turn get to market some of their products under that name and pay a portion of the profits from those products to the Global Fund to fight AIDS.
A year later, the program has received heaps of criticism and praise, most of which results from the unconventional way that it goes about its philanthropy. Many do not want to see an issue as crucial as world AIDS relief lowered to a crass marketing campaign meant to make people feel good about shopping at the Gap or picking up a new Ipod. On the other hand, there is little doubt that Red raises awareness of the crisis and gets people involved who would otherwise never think of donating to a relief organization.
It has been reported that $100 million has been spent marketing Red products — including a recent Superbowl ad for Dell's controversial Red laptop — but that only $18 million was raised last year. The Red campaign disputes those numbers, but does not dispute that more has been spent by the companies advertising their Red products than has been raised so far. Nonetheless, the very thing that makes Red so unique is that it's an ethical business that donates all of its profits, not an NGO or non-profit, so it will be interesting to see whether the program's success is sustainable and whether it inspires similar efforts for other causes.