Money, mergers, and mobilization

Jarrett Barrios resigned as president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation this past weekend.  GLAAD had received $50,000 from AT&T, and then filed a letter supporting the phone giant’s merger with T-Mobile.  The appearance of impropriety (read: corruption) is so great here that the resignation came quickly, but there is a much larger problem underneath the incident.

Advocacy takes money.  Organized groups pay for office space, computers, stationery, staff, and even advertising and product placement.  Any organization that doesn’t devote a substantial amount of time and effort to maintaining an active inflow of financial support will not be around for very long, and a successful president or executive director will be good at raising funds.

Groups have developed a wide range of strategies for raising money: cultivating rich donors, contracting services, selling products, running ads, maintaining membership, writing for grants, running a door-to-door canvass–and on and on and on.

The most fortunate groups, often faith-based, develop endowments that provide a stable base of support.  But living donors are fickle.  The savvy director has an eye on the political goals of her group–but also a finger in the shifting winds of donors’ priorities.

The challenge is finding ways to secure funding without selling anything–at least anything important.

AT&T insists that its donations to advocacy and arts groups, including GLAAD, the NAACP, and the NEA, were not contingent upon any of those groups taking a position on its proposed merger.  And all of the groups emphatically announced that they did not make political decisions based on financial contributions.  And all of the groups weighed in publicly in support of the merger.  (See Eliza Krigman’s Politico report.)

Making the case that the proposed merger represents a substantial step forward for civil rights or public education requires, minimally, some heavy lifting and conceptual stretching.  But it’s not immediately obvious that the merger would hurt those causes.  Is there something intrinsically wrong with working to curry favor with funders on issues that don’t seem to matter that much–so you can work more effectively on issues that do?

According to the Board of GLAAD, and according to gay and lesbian activists across the nation, there is.  Any group–or individual–that seems to sell its endorsement devalues the positions that it takes for free–that is, on principle.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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