Washing Clean Pans: Inside the Campaign Charity Photo Op

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October 15, 2012; Source: Salon

To be fair to Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), it isn’t unusual in the slightest for politicians to show up at public charities for photo ops with little or no prior relationship with the organization used as the photo op background. Congressman Ryan popped up at the soup kitchen run by the Mahoning County St. Vincent De Paul Society in Swanton, Ohio, reportedly got a volunteer to let him and his entourage in, and had his picture taken washing dishes there—even though, according to a soup kitchen spokesperson, the dinner was already over and everything had been already cleaned.

According to the Washington Post, Mahoning County St. Vincent De Paul Society President Brian J. Antag described the incident as follows:

“We’re a faith-based organization; we are apolitical because the majority of our funding is from private donations…It’s strictly in our bylaws not to do it. They showed up there, and they did not have permission. They got one of the volunteers to open up the doors…The photo-op they did wasn’t even accurate. He did nothing. He just came in here to get his picture taken at the dining hall…I can’t afford to lose funding from these private individuals [donors to his organization who expect it to remain nonpartisan]…If this was the Democrats, I’d have the same exact problem…Had they asked for permission, it wouldn’t have been granted. … But I certainly wouldn’t have let him wash clean pans, and then take a picture.”

Here’s a video of the photo op itself from CBS:

Photo ops are the lifeblood of political campaigns, often involving pictures of the smiling candidates mugging for the cameras while shaking hands, kissing babies, speaking before backdrops of smiling supporters, posing for a couple of minutes of serving food or, in Ryan’s case, washing pans. We have a few questions for NPQ Newswire readers: Has your nonprofit ever found itself in the position of being positioned and used as a photo op for a visiting political candidate? If so, has the candidate involved ever been sort of an uninvited guest? If so, how did you handle it? Does your nonprofit have a specific policy and procedure for responding to campaign requests for photo op visits? Give us your policy so that we can learn, in case Obama, Ryan, Biden, or Romney show up at Water Street in Boston with the expectation of a photo op with Ruth McCambridge and the NPQ gang.—Rick Cohen

  • Carrie

    While our non profit has not had this experience, it crosses all business lines. Just a few weeks ago in Denver, the Romney camp asked for a photo op at a local mexican restaurant. The owner is LDS, so the campaign assumed she would be excited to have Romney in for the op. She declined, and faced a lot of challenges to her business in doing so.

    She made it clear that if the Romney campaign had stopped in for lunch, she would have served them, and she would have even catered an event, as she has done in the past for the Democrats. She did not want a photo op to alienate any of her customers, but it caused the opposite, with many virulent and hateful comments on Yelp, and even death threats.


  • Lisa Christie

    Our agnecy is in NH, the political hotbed of candidates every national election cycle. Our policy is stated below. Basically we would allow candidates to come in without media, and when they learn that they always decline.

    Now that the political season is upon us we may be descended upon by politicians and the media. In order to respect the privacy of those who need to use our services, the NSK&S has a policy that no candidates may come into the soup kitchen or the shelters with any media people.

    If a candidate would like to schedule a time to come in and volunteer and/or talk with our guests about their lives, it should be done through the office.

  • Gina

    Earlier this year, a board member suggested to a friend, a candidate for a local CA assembly seat, that she do a photo op with kids at one of the numerous sites we operated–all the better to show her commitment to children. She also invoked her status as a donor (one low-dollar gift) when she approached staff with her request. Fortunately, we had very clear policies in place concerning political endorsements and were able to cite them as we politely declined.

    Our policy allowed the organization to take very limited positions on political issues–legislation, ballot initiatives, proposed regulations–directly affecting our client population, but strictly prohibited any endorsement of candidates. The policies were circulated to the board before the electoral season heated up to remind them that even a using the charity as a photo backdrop could be construed as an implied political endorsement.

    We were also asked to lend our support to a ballot initiative that had only a marginal relationship to our mission and again, we politely declined, to the disappointment of an organization that had been an occasional ally on other issues.

    At other times, I had to contend with political candidates showing up at fundraising events and ensured that any photographs used included both candidates or neither of them. This is not such an issue now that newspapers are hard pressed to cover major events, let alone fundraising dinners.

    Charities need clear policies on a range of media and lobbying activities that are communicated to board, staff and volunteers.

  • rick cohen

    very interesting story, Carrie, thank you

  • rick cohen

    thanks for the story, Gina, and the lesson that clear policies are needed.

  • rick cohen

    Thanks Lisa. How do you enforce the no-media policy? How do you distinguish in a candidate’s entourage who is or isn’t media?

  • Michael Wyland

    Awkward moment…

    The wife of a former CEO of a national charity is running for partisan political office. She shows up at a facility, operated by the charity her husband used to lead, to meet and greet voters. The staff ask her to leave, explaining that the nonprofit is apolitical. Ouch!

    Having been politically active, including having been a candidate, I can attest to the fact that candidates find it difficult to funciton as they usually do as election day nears. The pressure and tunnel vision which accompany a campaign skew perception. It’s often even more of a problem for the campaign’s staff and most committed volunteers.

    Vice Presidential candidates are treated in such a way by their presidential campaigns in such a way as to prepare them for what has been called “the most theoretical office in in the land.”

  • Keenan Wellar

    The challenge we’ve experience that is closest to this type of incident is getting requests to host announcements. That might not sound like a big deal, but frequently the request doesn’t come with an explanation of what the announcement actually says! It’s always rather awkward in that the other end of the phone genuinely believes they are bestownig a great opportunity for exposure – which perhaps they are, but there seems to be a lack of appreciation that charities have philosophies, reputations, values…and to be used as a backdrop for an announcement that may or may not be in alignment just doesn’t make sense.

    The “pots and pans” issue doesn’t happen to us because most of what we do is community-based, not office-based. It results in much confusion for political aides who want to host a “tour of our facility” for the official they represent – they don’t tend to quickly get the humour (or the point) that the tour would take about 3 minutes and involve the viewing of the paper shredder and coffee machine, unless they want to see us in action with the people we support, in which case they’ve need to tour dozens of homes, workplaces, and community centres all across the city.