I was listening to a Pandora station the other day (I know, I might as well log into MySpace too), when I happened to look at the screen. What I saw threw me for a loop: an advertisement for the United Negro College Fund’s Koch Scholars Program.
“Koch? As in the Koch brothers?” I surfed over to Google and learned that these billionaire industrialists had donated $25 million to the UNCF back in 2014 – one year after Trayvon Martin’s killer was exonerated by a Florida jury.
I first heard of the Koch brothers in the aftermath of that verdict, when community activists urged us to boycott a laundry list of products made by Koch Industries and its subsidiaries, including popular brands of paper towels and toilet tissue and most of the plywood in America. Their “crime”? Using their enormous wealth to support a conservative political agenda, including notorious rightwing lobby ALEC and legislation such as the Stand Your Ground law, which protects people like George Zimmerman, who shot an unarmed boy he picked a fight with, but doesn’t apply to women like Marisa Alexander, who was sentenced to serious time for firing a warning shot in the air to escape her abusive partner.
(The boycott against the Koch brothers is not limited to the Black Lives Matter movement; progressives have criticized their politics and affiliations for years before Trayvon Martin became a tragic household name.)
I’m pretty evenly divided between bleeding heart and jaded cynic, so this UNCF sponsorship definitely raised an eyebrow. There are definitely youth in our community who need help paying for a college education. But at the expense of the Kochs’ attempt to buy favor and improve their reputation among the black community?
$25 million does seem as generous as the UNCF website proclaims it to be until you compare it with their political spending during Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign via an organization called Americans for Prosperity. As researcher Jill Harkins explains:
The organization spent $122 million during that year’s election cycle in an attempt to unseat incumbent President Barack Obama; it had channeled only $72 million combined into elections in the previous eight years since its inception.
See, on the one hand, the Kochs publicly associate their name with making higher education available to aspiring black entrepreneurs. On the other hand, their names barely appear on the Americans for Prosperity website, even though they created and bankrolled the pro-Trump, pro-Tea Party, anti-Obama and “Obamacare” public advocacy organization.
That is the invisible hand of capitalism at work, patting itself on the back for charitable works while concealing a much larger, self-serving agenda. So I get why some people look suspiciously at grant funding and the nonprofits that compete for corporation’s tax-exempt donations.
This isn’t new by any means. In fact, the great Guyanese Pan-African scholar Walter Rodney called out this brand of philanthropy way back in 1968:
Rockefeller–who is making most of his money out of South African gold, out of the Rand, out of exploiting and participating in apartheid, the most vicious racial system in the world–that guy is going to finance a chair in African history. That’s the type of contradiction. So that if a black progressive thinks he’s doing something by going into African history, using up a Rockefeller grant, all he is doing is forgetting both the domestic and external implications of American capitalism and, in fact, supporting that system because the guys don’t mind if you go in a library or museum and lock yourself up all day. That’s wonderful; keep you off the street, keep you out of struggle.
Rockefeller and the Koch brothers are hardly the only players in this charitable-industrial complex. Nearly every Fortune 500 company offloads a portion of its profits into an affiliated foundation or some kind of corporate social responsibility division.
Along with government grants and family trusts, corporate donations finance all kinds of nonprofit organizations: huge ones like universities, big and well-established arts organizations, museums and national service organizations such as the Salvation Army down to regional, statewide, and citywide charities. Even small, volunteer-based and neighborhood level organizations can snag a few grants if they learn how to find and convince the funders.
That last group of folks is where I live. Before my brief stint in philanthropy, I worked with numerous small, community-based organizations, most of which had gotten a 501(c)(3) designation so they could access more economic resources to fulfill their missions.
It’s true that they are competing for what sometimes amounts to the cast-offs of the rich and privileged, including some of the athletes and entertainers we love to watch. (To be fair, some people who are in a position to give are quite thoughtful and intentional about using their wealth to transform the places that shaped them or to impact causes they care deeply about. Akon, LeBron James, and Lil Jon come to mind as examples of sincere philanthropists of our generation.)
Until the revolution comes, though, they are also trying to provide services to our youth, seniors and adults who need help or access they cannot afford to pay for, folks at the opposite end of the spectrum from the moguls, heiresses and celebrities.
As we know, the need is great. If the grants were not available, would our community servants find another way to provide the same or greater level of services, or would the contradictions end up becoming dire enough, the suffering great enough, that the needy would erupt and demand a redistribution of resources so that no one had to depend on handouts in the first place?
Are we being bought off by billionaires’ pocket change so we don’t ask why are there so many billionaires? Or has American society has been so conditioned to adore the rich lifestyle that we’d just soon ask how we, too, can “live our best life” and have enough left over to finance hospitals, schools, and social movements?
These are just a few questions to reflect on during this season of both giving and extreme consumerism – after all, many of the biggest philanthropists earn their “pocket change” through our collective purchasing decisions. We can exercise some choice by choosing to spend money with companies that share our values and avoiding those that don’t.
We can also become part of the small but mighty fourth leg of the charitable giving table: individual donors. But I will go more into that during part two of this series.