Carrier With a Conscience: The Mobile Phone Company Funding Progressive Groups

photo:  Africa Studio/shutterstock

photo:  Africa Studio/shutterstock

In recent months, we've highlighted the work of quite a few individual donors and family foundations that have been standing up for immigrant rights across the country. Well, a few corporate funders have been getting in on this action, too, in some pretty creative ways.

Among those joining the fight is CREDO Mobile, a familiar if highly unusual player in the progressive funding ecosystem, which recently made a grant to America’s Voice, an immigration reform group working to put immigrants on the path to full citizenship. This is a mobile phone carrier that has made grants each month to advocacy organizations since its founding in 1985. Long known as Working Assets until its rebranding in 2007, the company was founded by Peter Barnes, Michael Kieschnick and Laura Scher with the explicit goal of funding progressive organizations. While it's now common to see businesses formed to achieve social goals, Working Assets was way ahead of its time. It's also successfully evolved over three decades: It was originally in the credit card business before moving into long-distance phone service and then on to mobile phone service.   

Very few of us think of paying our monthly phone bill as a form of advocacy work, but CREDO Mobile is making this type of connection—while also offering an alternative to telecom giants like Verizon that often back bad public policy (like opposing net neutrality.) CREDO has donated over $83 million to date. Two of CREDO's co-founders, Michael Kieschnick and Laura Scher, are still actively involved with the company. Independently, Kieschnick is an important donor to progressive causes and candidates.

We asked Trish Tobin, the vice president of marketing at CREDO Mobile,  about the unusual operating model that allows the company to donate to progressive organizations like America’s Voice each and every month.

“CREDO Mobile is able to donate to important causes each month because of our customers,” she said. “Since we direct a portion of their phone bill payments to funding advocacy and humanitarian organizations, CREDO Mobile customers are empowered to support the causes they care about at no additional cost.”

CREDO doesn't just make grants, by the way. It also engages in advocacy, mobilizing its customers to get involved. Its staff monitors the news, picks issues where it believes it can make a difference, sends petitions and emails to decision makers, and then steps things up with phone calls and speaking out at local meetings. For example, CREDO launched a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures urging Senate members to vote against Betsy DeVos.

CREDO's monthly bills are a key way it directs activist efforts by its customers. The bills list the contact names and numbers for elected representatives, along with descriptions of crucial current issues. And in an interesting example of participatory grantmaking, CREDO customers can also weigh in on which organizations receive grant money. When selecting grant recipients, CREDO looks for groups that are fighting for ordinary people and working on issues that are currently challenged either by the current administration or other oppressive forces.

“We respond to the current political climate and try to identify groups who are doing work on the ground at the forefront of progressive fights or in response to new or existing political battles that are constantly evolving,” Tobin said.

Groups like Planned Parenthood, Rainforest Action Network, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the ACLU tend to receive CREDO grants. A full list of recent recipients is available here.

Admittedly, these grants aren’t huge in the grand scheme of things. But the money keeps flowing month after month and year after year with a sustainable for-profit model—just like the founders intended. There are many companies that operate this way. It's true, as mentioned, that social enterprises are now quite common. But very few of these outfits are explicitly created to fund progressive work. Most seek to solve problems in a sustainable way through the business activity itself, as opposed to throwing off extra cash that can be donated to nonprofits. 

CREDO Mobile has been a pioneer in other ways, too. Earlier this year, it released information about government requests for user data and was the first phone company to publish a transparency report about these controversial requests for text and phone records. Meanwhile, conservatives have responded to CREDO Mobile’s actions by launching Patriot Mobile, which is based in Dallas and offers an alternative to the many phone carriers that have liberal leanings.

So, what’s next for CREDO Mobile giving?

Tobin told us that grantee selection is based on the most urgent issues at hand and that this month’s grantees are 350.orgADAPT and Mercy Corps. CREDO Mobile chose these groups “because of their pivotal roles in supporting clean energy solutions, fighting for disability rights as part of the resistance to the attempted healthcare repeal, and providing essential hurricane relief, respectively.”

Now for the bad news: This funder does not provide a clear way to apply for a grant or receive CREDO Mobile’s support. Rather, it explains, "Each year, we receive hundreds of nominations from our members. The groups that meet our eligibility requirements are then considered for funding." But nonprofit staff that are CREDO customers can nominate groups—including their own organizations. 

Related: Defending the Dream: Who’s Giving Grants for DACA Right Now?