Politico’s Eliza Krigman reports that several non-profit groups that receive money from AT&T have recently voiced support for the telecom giant’s impeding merger with T-Mobile USA.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the National Education Association (NEA) have all spoken in favor of the deal in recent weeks. Each receives substantial donations from AT&T. Each predictably claims that the fat stacks of cash that AT&T gave them did not influence them in anyway.
GLAAD, to its credit, has a track record of vocal opposition to its benefactors. The organization criticized NBC Universal’s merger with Comcast because of their low grade on GLAAD’s “Network Responsibility Index.” NBC is one of GLAAD’s corporate sponsors.
William Barber, head of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, sagely said, “One of the unique things about the NAACP is that financial support does not determine our civil rights positions.” Thusly, this clearly skilled orator declared his organization to be the only one not influenced by money while simultaneously pointing out that even if they were influenced by money, the AT&T/T-Mobile merger isn’t a civil rights issue so it wouldn’t count.
But it would make sense for a non-profit—an organization that by definition requires the financial assistance of others (especially corporations)—to feel compelled to publicly support one of their larger benefactors, as Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation attests. What makes the relationship troubling is when groups with no vested interest in the success or failure of such a deal can be influenced so easily by money. Microsoft, Yahoo, Oracle, Facebook and Research In Motion have all voiced approval for the merger, but they all benefit from a more robust, rapidly deployed AT&T network.
It should come as no surprise that these relationships with non-profits have benefited AT&T so favorably; their chief lobbyist, Jim Cicconi, is chairman of the AT&T Foundation board. The foundation doles out millions each year—$62 million in 2009 alone. That means the same man in charge of massaging politicians to write legislation favorable to his company is the same guy who holds the purse strings for the various non-profits AT&T supports. Would it be so strange for Cicconi to wield influence over a non-profit that depends on his donations?
It is difficult to fault AT&T for this favorable relationship. They donate money willingly to non-profit organizations that desperately need it, and in turn benefit from positive PR. In turn, more minority groups are able to help more people. But it’s also a farce to think that AT&T supports non-profits because of any moral compass or voluntary responsibility. In a capitalistic sense, the only reason there is an AT&T Foundation is because of its PR benefits. And in the boardroom of a publicly traded company, the capitalistic sense is the only sense that matters. And for that reason endorsements from such non-profits must be met with some level of skepticism.
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