Surprise! AT&T Gives Nonprofits Grants and then the Nonprofits Support Its Acquisition of T-Mobile

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October 17, 2011; Source: iWatch News (Center for Public Integrity) | The Center for Public Integrity puts it this way: “At first sight, it’s hard to understand why the Shreveport-Bossier Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter and clinic in Louisiana, would lobby the Federal Communications Commission.”

The faith-based service provider offered what it acknowledged was “an out-of-place endorsement” of the AT&T merger with T-Mobile, with Rev. R. Henry Martin explaining that “People often call on God to help the outcasts and downtrodden that walk among us, [but] [s]ometimes, however, it is our responsibility to take matters into our own hands. Please support this merger.”

What made a Louisiana homeless clinic weigh in with the FCC on a corporate merger? Perhaps it isn’t causal, but the correlation of the Rescue Mission’s letter to the FCC followed by only a few months a $50,000 donation from AT&T.

Among the others groups receiving AT&T grants and then offering AT&T endorsements are the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) (GLAAD’s executive director and a number of board members resigned after this information became public), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) (no resignations there concerning this endorsement as far as we know), the American Red Cross of Northeastern California, the Arts Association of Newton County (Georgia), three Boys & Girls Clubs, the Delta Arts Alliance, Dorchester Habitat for Humanity, the Greater Sacramento Urban League, seven local Urban League affiliates (plus the National Urban League), and the United Way of Northwest Florida.

When contacted by the Center for comment, most came up with some explanation or another for their sudden interest in broadband access issues, but only the very naïve would miss the connection between this new blast of FCC advocacy on the parts of these organizations and AT&T’s philanthropic largesse. The Center noted that the head of the AT&T corporate foundation happened to be James Cicconi, a former aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who also serves as AT&T’s chief lobbyist.

Most corporate philanthropy is now strategic, with a focus on advancing corporate goals in both business and political realms. The days of corporate giving as simply a part of good corporate citizenship are pretty much gone, even for corporations like AT&T, which ranked number 86 on Corporate Responsibility magazine’s list of the “100 Best Corporate Citizens” for 2011.

Perhaps the saddest part of this story is the endorsement the of AT&T–T-Mobile merger from the American Federation for the Blind, the same place that Helen Keller worked for forty years. Keller was a member of the Socialist Party, a longtime supporter of the many presidential campaigns of Eugene V. Debs, and eventually a member of the much more radical Industrial Workers of the World (“the Wobblies”). What would socialist Helen Keller think of written testimonials from the AFB on behalf of AT&T?—Rick Cohen

  • Paul W. Schroeder

    Helen Keller, who championed the development and distribution of technology to assist people who are blind, visually impaired or deaf-blind, would be leading our efforts today to ensure access to the Internet and broadband for people with disabilities. She would also publicly recognize AT&T, as we have, for its leadership in fostering access to mobile technology for people with disabilities, recently illustrated by the release of AT&T Mobile Access Lite for Android devices. Helen Keller would hope, as we do, that the merger would result in expanded access for T-Mobile consumers with vision loss, who are not currently well served.

    Back in April, I addressed this topic directly:

    Our correct name is the American Foundation for the Blind, and we have been actively pushing the Federal Communications Commission to address accessibility since the early 1990s. We have advocated for two major changes in communications law, in 1996 and again in 2010 with the enactment of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act.

    We hope more companies in the communication industry will step forward to welcome consumers with disabilities as full customers.

    Paul W. Schroeder
    Vice President, Programs and Policy
    American Foundation for the Blind

  • DaveNonprofitManager

    And you folks think that merging with AT&T is the best way to get T-Mobile to provide more effective service? That seems disingenuous–I know you have a long history of advocacy for accessibility, so you know perfectly well that being absorbed by another company in an ever-shrinking field isn’t normally the most direct route to better service for the disabled. If you want to give any appearance other than that your voice has been purchased, you’d be better off not taking donations from companies whose direct interest you then advocate for; otherwise it’ll be very hard for people to take you seriously when you advocate just based on principles.