Caution!” Photo: Julia King

July 16, 2018; Chicago Tribune

Wise nonprofits know that accepting a gift from any individual or institution links your reputation to theirs. Although this story is more about elected officials, it makes the same point.

Chicago Alderman Raymond Lopez has come under fire for taking campaign donations over three years from the GEO Group, one of the two largest private prison contractors in the country and a corporation in the growth business of detaining immigrants.

“Unfortunately, none of us knew at that time what detention centers were,” Lopez said. This strains credulity a bit, since most politically aware people have been aware of their existence and use for some time.

After becoming the target of an online petition for taking $2,750 from GEO’s political action committee, Lopez has committed to donating $5,000 to the nonprofit Centro Sin Fronteras, a Heart of Chicago-based Mexican organization. Lopez sees giving the money away as the sensible choice, now that GEO’s business model is more widely known.

“I know what the perceptions can be,” he continued. “I don’t want any of that perceived negativity.”

Tania Unzueta of Mijente, a Chicago community group politically opposed to Lopez and his reelection, says the campaign contributions have to be understood “within the context of him consistently being on the side of law enforcement in a way that I think is harmful to our Latino community in particular.” GEO, she says, is “literally profiting off of the detention of people who look like people in his ward.”

Lopez’s ward includes parts of the Back of the Yards, Brighton Park and West Englewood neighborhoods. The first-term alderman drew attention when the Chicago Police Department put him under police protection because of gang threats against him. That move was in response to Lopez saying “no innocent lives were lost” after two people were killed when masked gunmen opened fire on a group congregating at a makeshift memorial for a man who earlier had been slain.

Lopez retorts that some who seek to hold him to account “choose to give blanket amnesty to all undocumented, regardless of what they’re doing in this country,” and warns that “oftentimes they like to intertwine gang members and undocumented individuals who are coming to this country in pursuit of a fresh start and positive beginnings. I think that’s where a lot of our issues and division comes from.”

Meanwhile, it’s come to light that the Chicago City Council Latino Caucus Foundation also accepted two donations totaling $1500 from GEO. Current caucus chair Alderman Gilbert Villegas says the group will divest itself of the money, perhaps also by way of donating it to a local migrant-serving nonprofit.

“We’re not going to keep any money that goes against what we believe in,” Villegas said, adding that they will go back and scrutinize past donations.

Cardenas, who was the caucus chairman when the 2016 donation was received, says the foundation supporting the caucus obviously needs gift policies. Of that, there is no doubt. NPQA’s Rick Cohen wrote about this in 2013 in a case involving the NAACP and Coca Cola:

Our belief is that, when dealing with corporate grantmakers, nonprofits must remember the importance of gift (or grant) acceptance policies. A gift acceptance policy addresses three questions for nonprofits soliciting money from corporate groups:

• What kinds of corporations will a nonprofit solicit for funding, and what kinds will it avoid or reject?

• What conditions or restrictions imposed by the grantmaker will the nonprofit accept?

• How will the nonprofit evaluate corporate grantmakers as potential funders?

Corporations don’t always engage in strategic philanthropy just because they’re entirely motivated by being good citizens. They’re always concerned about their profitability, visibility, acceptance, and marketing. When dealing with corporate funders, the challenge for a big national nonprofit like the NAACP, and for nonprofits of every stripe, is to be sure not to seek or accept corporate money that could compromise one’s mission or credibility.

—Ruth McCambridge