Separation of church and business

National | President Bush and foundation heavyweight Michael Joyce ask: Why do corporations shun faith-based organizations in their philanthropy?

Issue: "Abolition of C.S. Lewis?," June 16, 2001

in Washington-The White House faith-based initiative is opening up a new front, and some of its guns are aimed squarely at big business. "Faith-based organizations receive only a tiny percentage of overall corporate giving," President Bush announced late last month. "Currently, six of the 10 largest corporate givers in America explicitly rule out or restrict donations to faith-based groups, regardless of their effectiveness. The federal government will not discriminate against faith-based organizations, and neither should corporate America." The president's numbers came from a study soon to be released by the Washington-based Capital Research Center, which has issued an annual guide to "Patterns of Corporate Philanthropy" since the mid-1980s. CRC's Christopher Yablonski has noted that policies posted on the websites of these top corporate givers often include rules to discriminate against charities that see a connection between material problems and spiritual problems. For instance:

  • General Motors (No. 1 in corporate giving) declares contributions "are generally not provided to ... religious organizations."
  • The Ford Motor Company Fund (No. 3), "as a general policy, does not support the following: religious or sectarian programs for religious purposes." That's in the same undesirable category as "animal rights organizations" and "beauty or talent contests."
  • ExxonMobil (No. 4) explains, "We do not provide funds for political or religious causes." That's not exactly true, since the company also touts its support of environmentalists, advocacy groups for women and minorities, and groups performing "public research."
  • IBM (No. 6) "does not make equipment donations or grants from corporate philanthropic funds to ... individuals, political, labor, religious, or fraternal organizations or sports groups." Many faith-based groups might also have trouble with the last two words of IBM's ban on "organizations that discriminate in any way against race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation."
  • The Citigroup Foundation (No. 7) declares: "It is not our policy to make grants to ... religious, veteran, or fraternal organizations, unless they are engaged in a significant project benefiting the entire community."
  • AT&T (No. 8) will only fund groups that are "nonsectarian and nondenominational."

Wal-Mart, the No. 2 corporate benefactor, was the main contrarian. Mr. Yablonski said the company awards a lot of small grants, and on previous donation lists, it looked like "every other grant" was to a faith-based charity. And the other companies' policies don't always completely bar donations to religious groups. CRC found that in contributions of $10,000 or more, some bans were complete (IBM zero percent, AT&T 0.06 percent), but some let a little sunshine in (GM 2.2 percent, Ford 3.2 percent, Citigroup 3.9 percent). One top-10 giver without an explicit ban, Boeing McDonnell, still only gave 4.6 percent of its grant money to faith-based organizations. Corporations today often view their contributions as a business expense. The CRC regularly finds liberal women's and minority groups at the top of the corporate donation list, which is a handy inoculation device against discrimination lawsuits. But faith-based groups barely register on the typical corporate radar screen. "I was on a panel with a corporate officer who said the First Amendment didn't allow them to give to religious groups," said conservative philanthropy executive Michael Joyce, commenting on the corporate mindset. "Corporate leaders are working with some intellectual rot, or some pure ignorance." At a meeting at the White House in late January, Mr. Joyce took his turn to speak about corporate discrimination against faith-based groups: "I said the president is both president of the government, but also president of the nation. There's a huge private sector that spends billions emulating what government does. A few well-placed words from the president could have a profound effect. He could call in top CEOs and ask 'what's going on here?' The president picked up on that right away." This month, at age 58, Mr. Joyce is stepping down from the helm of the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation to lead two new nonprofit groups at the crossroads of business, politics, and faith-based initiatives. The first, based in Washington, will take on the "short-term game" of lobbying members of Congress and other Washington elites about the virtues of President Bush's plan, as summarized in the "Community Solutions Act" before the House of Representatives. The second, based in Phoenix, is a "larger project, educating the culture, and private donors in particular, for the long haul." But how will Mr. Joyce's new groups deal with campaign-finance conspiracy theorists and follow-the-money investigative journalists in the major media? They may quickly insinuate that the groups are a clever way for Bush donors to puff up the presidential legacy without any troublesome contribution limits. Mr. Joyce thinks such a brouhaha would be a waste of breath. "Barry Lynn [of Americans United for Separation of Church and State] and his crowd have a lot of resources. It isn't who funds anything. It's what they actually do." He plans on keeping in touch with the White House, but "what we cannot do is carry out their wishes. We will have to operate independently. It's just that simple." Tom Riley, director of research at the Philanthropy Roundtable (which Mr. Joyce had a major role in creating decades ago) says Mr. Joyce was an atypical foundation executive during his 15 years at Bradley. Most program officers at large foundations are incredibly risk-averse, and since there's no risk of financial ruin, the biggest risk is bad press. Many corporations and foundations try to avoid controversy by avoiding charities that might be unpopular with the press. "Michael Joyce took those risks, and he was strategic rather than reactive. He had a vision, a long-term approach of building a movement, an infrastructure." Mr. Joyce brings a similarly unorthodox approach to his new calling. Whenever the subject is the success of conservative philanthropy, Mr. Joyce sees no big secret. "Ordinary people understand this really well," he said. "We take human nature into account. We understand humans as they were wrought by God. These people wish to remake them and rearrange them. It's like that line in a Bob Marley song, 'don't let them rearrange you.' That's why they fail."

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