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Cheating for charity mars giveaways

Pepsi and Wal-Mart launched social media campaigns to give millions of dollars to the most popular charities. But did some buy votes?

By Teresa Mears Jan 11, 2011 3:50PM

It sounds like a great idea: A major corporation will donate a significant chunk of money to the nonprofit organizations that get the most online votes, providing publicity for the corporation and cash for the nonprofit.


Because everyone who runs a nonprofit has friends and those friends have friends, and if they all get involved ….


But what if your competition is using robo-voters?


Questions of cheating and "vote buying" have marred two major corporate efforts to provide grants to nonprofits:

The amount of money involved in these contests is large enough to compel many nonprofits to invest significant time, one of their scarcest resources. Adnan at Jolkona, which facilitates giving to charities around the world, detailed the difficulty of submitting a proposal to the Pepsi Refresh Project.


But, according to stories in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, the contest also has been plagued by allegations of vote buying (what's next, hanging chads?).


Daniel Graham of Arkadelphia, Ark., who runs a charity that donates baked goods to hungry children, told the Tribune that he was approached by someone who said he could bring in the clicks to win the contest, in exchange for 20% of the winnings. His charity soared from 250th to seventh place in a week.


He had second thoughts, asked Pepsi to audit the votes, and his rankings plummeted.


"I am totally disillusioned," he told the Tribune. "I respect what Pepsi is doing, but it seems people always find a way to take advantage. Every system has its cheaters."


The Tribune also interviewed a Louisiana man who said he was hired by a company in India to cast bogus votes.


Both Pepsi and Wal-Mart have said they work to maintain the integrity of their contests. "Please rest assured that we are taking any and all issues related to proxy or fraudulent voting very seriously, and that our teams are continuously working hard to prevent such situations from arising," Shiv Singh of Pepsi wrote on the Refresh blog.


Last August, Micki Krimmel, the founder of, wrote at The Huffington Post about trying to balance her organization's need for money with her frustrations about the Pepsi process:

Still, the allure of $50k to support NeighborGoods is difficult to ignore and somehow the contest keeps crawling back into my mind. $50k would do a lot for our growing company. Instead of just calling it quits and moving on, I've spent the majority of this month feeling frustrated and powerless in the face of the dark unknown beast that is the Pepsi Refresh Challenge. Not because we're doing poorly (we are). But because Pepsi did not provide the tools necessary to even play a fair game.

Her complaints centered on the lack of transparency and on technical problems, some of which were detailed by Sloane Berrent at The Causemopolitan. Several bloggers have suggested that allowing one vote per person, rather than allowing people to vote multiple times, would help make the process fairer.


The contests, of course, are valuable marketing tools for the companies. Pepsi even canceled its Super Bowl commercials to focus its marketing budget on social media. Every time you ask a friend to vote at the Pepsi Refresh Project or the Wal-Mart Fighting Hunger challenge, you are putting the company's name smack dab in front of your friend. If your friend has to vote every day, that's a new ad every day.


As Krimmel wrote:

Contests like these are thinly veiled marketing tools for the companies hosting them. Everyone who enters a project in Pepsi Refresh becomes a willing marketing drone to benefit Pepsi at the cost of his/her own social capital. What does Pepsi give in return for that precious social capital?


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