Minefield: The Nexus of Corporate Philanthropy and Politics Just Got Far Dicier

The prominent ride-sharing service Lyft was the first tech company to take a major stand against the Trump administration's executive order barring travel from the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. Last Saturday, as the ban went into effect, it announced a million dollar donation to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Banning people of a particular faith or creed, race or identity, sexuality or ethnicity, from entering the U.S. is antithetical to both Lyft's and our nation's core values,” the company said in a blog post. “We stand firmly against these actions, and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community.”

A few days later, Google confirmed it was creating a $4 million "crisis fund" to distribute grants not just to the ACLU, but the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the International Rescue Committee, and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Google co-founder Sergey Brin was spotted at a protest at San Francisco International Airport telling reporters, “I'm here because I'm a refugee."

The Lyft donation, earmarked over four years, was widely hailed on social media. Meanwhile, across Silicon Valley, CEO’s were all but in lockstep, positioning themselves and their companies against the ban. Reddit Co-founder Alexis Ohanian (whose philanthropy we covered recently) called the order, “unconstitutional” and “deeply un-American” and Airbnb went so far as to offer refugees and others affected by the ban “free housing.”

The pushback has kept growing. By Friday, over 2,000 tech leaders had signed a petition opposing the ban. For some, the step may be about the bottom line as much as anything else. “People are identifying with brands in a way they identified with people before,” Ryan Davis, a brand consultant and strategy director of Bushwick Digital told Inside Philanthropy. “People expect brands to have their values.”  

The moves by Silicon Valley, however, also raised the stakes in what has become a perilous nexus between philanthropy and politics, where one wrong step can induce a major firestorm — but where a right move can bring swarms of new customers. 

The public steps from Lyft and others came as Uber felt the sting of user outrage after the company eliminated surge pricing during intense protesting Saturday night. Though Uber later insisted its actions were misunderstood, the move was taken by many as an attempt to undercut yellow cabs that were protesting the ban by temporarily halting service to New York’s JFK airport.

A subsequent #DeleteUber campaign has become so ferocious that the company was forced to automate its process to handle the flood of deleted accounts. CEO Travis Kalanick has now dropped out as a Trump economic advisor and come out publicly against the immigrant ban.  

Uber’s troubles were hardly unique. An announcement by Starbucks signaling its intention to employ 10,000 refugees drew furious reactions in some quarters of the United States from critics who said the company should focus on out-of-work Americans instead. The blowback was so severe that CEO Howard Schultz was forced to issue a hasty clarification, insisting his company would also speed up an existing program to hire 10,000 veterans and military spouses. (We've written in the past about Schultz family philanthropy, which has had a big focus on helping veterans and young Americans get ahead.)

“As society has become more polarized, it only makes sense that brands follow. You’ll have one brand for liberals and one for conservatives,” said Davis, adding that much of the distinction would rely more on savvy public relations. “Liberals love Apple, but for years, Apple products were made in ways liberals would find abhorrent. Much of this brand behavior is mostly smoke and mirrors.”

Within the volatile brew of consideration, the most terrifying of all might be the 45th President himself. Throughout his campaign and after his election, Donald Trump maintained his prolific Twitter account, often wielding his more than 23 million followers as a bludgeon against people and brands that defied him. Foul words from the leader of the free world have already sent stock prices tumbling for companies caught in the crosshairs.

When Apple refused to help the FBI hack into the cellphone of San Bernardino terrorist Syed Farook, Trump hit hard, calling for a boycott of the company. It didn’t work, and today, Apple stock trades near its all-time high, but the threat remains real. Tech companies that seek glib entry into public policy debates should be on notice that 2017 will be the year of giving and branding dangerously.

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