Foundation Friday: The wages of retail

Word comes from a public relations firm that the Wal-Mart Foundation has selected a new president in the person of Margaret McKenna, soon-to-be-ex-president of Lesley University in Boston and previous deputy counsel to the Carter White House (among many other positions in government and academe).  The PR firm also takes pains to note that

In 2006, Wal-Mart gave more than $270 million to support its 4,000-plus U.S.-based communities and has been recognized by the Chronicle of Philanthropy as the largest cash contributor in America.

The Nonprofiteer supposes it would be ungracious to ask how much of that money came from Wal-Mart’s policy of purchasing goods from sweatshops in China (and by sweatshops we mean not places that pay sub-American wages but places that, e.g., pay workers for 6 days when they work 7) and how much of it came from the theft prevented by locking in its workers on the overnight shift.   And it would be equally ungracious to note the extent to which Wal-Mart’s corporate philanthropy concentrates on its opposition to public education

Always right-wing.  Always.   

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8 Responses to “Foundation Friday: The wages of retail”

  1. Able Soul Says:

    No fair. Everybody picks on poor Wall-Mart.

    Its like shooting candy off a baby in a barrel.

    Ain’t most big corporate philanthropy a bit of smoke and mirrors?

    They are not the only big corporation peddling “everyday low values” while tossing a few crumbs to the needy.

    Last week I met with an investment advisor who wanted to peddle his services to a donor I work with.

    He gave me a print-out of all that his firm did for philanthropy — his fancy brochure had some great shots of black and latino kids doing homework.

    I asked him what he felt about his firms major headlining role in promoting the sub-prime mortgage debacle that is crushing thousands of poor people.

    He nearly choked on his Double Mocaccinno trying to muddle a response.

  2. Sam Davis Says:

    It might interest the Nonprofiteer to know that when Wal-Mart opens a new store in an previously unserved area, retail prices in the area typically fall 10-12 percent; that Wal-Mart is absolutely counted on by families below the median income level; that Wal-Mart supports many charitable causes that have nothing to do with politics, rightwing (however Nonprofiteer defines that) or otherwise.

    Individuals who have a problem purchasing items they believe were made by workers in sweatshop conditions are free, of course, not to shop at Wal-Mart, if they can find a store that sells clothing not made in China, Asia, Africa or Latin America.

    Anti-globalists automatically define goods coming from any of those countries as being products of “sweatshops” where workers are poorly paid and treated. Data shows that the real conditions on the ground in those countries is quite a bit different from what the anti-globalists and their mercantilist and protectionist allies would have us believe.

    Countries with active manufacturing sectors in those regions, along with some semblance of free market rules, are pulling themselves from poverty, something that 50 years of government-to-government aid did not accomplish.

    At the end of the day, Wal-Mart and other US retailers who buy products from China, etc., are helping both US consumers with low prices, and the workers who produce the items, who are escaping poverty through their own efforts.

    And, I’d say Wal-Mart leaves a much better impression of Americans overseas than, for instance, the current US administration and its imperialist, war-mongering foreign policy.

  3. Rick Cohen Says:

    Because I’ve done research on the philanthropy of Wal-Mart and the Walton Family Foundation, I have a little information to give you. The anti-public education grantmaking is from the Walton Family Foundation. You’ll find very little of that in the massive numbers of small grants from the Wal-Mart Foundation (although if you track how they use the Wal-Mart grantmaking to win local community supporters of big box stores, there’s plenty to criticize). And the Walton Family Foundation grantmaking is very smart when it comes to education, focusing on three themes: vouchers (and tax credits), charter schools (which are within the public school systems), and public schools directly. I see very clear linkages between what the Walton Family Foundation does with vouchers, tax credits, and charters, as they’re all part of a theory of school choice that the Waltons believe in, but many ostensibly liberal foundations strongly support charters, in part because they’re part of public school systems (even when managed by private managers), thus the strong support for charters and for charter school managers like KIPP from the likes of the Gates Foundation and many many others. And the Walton Family Foundation does actually put money into public school systems directly. So two of the three legs of their K-12 education funding are ostensibly in support of public education. Nonetheless, by my count, the Walton Family Foundation is responsible for a huge proportion of foundation funding directly and indirectly in support of vouchers and education tax credits, dwarfing the grantmaking of other major conservative funders like Bradley in this area.

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Able Soul: Fair point: it’s far too easy to pick on Wal-Mart; but just for a change I was using the company as an example instead of a unique purveyor of evil. My colleague Phil Cubeta at gifthub.com has a wonderful posting (“Root Causes: A Role-Playing Game”) in which he describes all the participants in the nonprofit sphere and asks pertinent questions about the extent to which each of them causes the problems s/he purports to be solving–even when the efforts to solve problems occur in good faith. The Wal-Mart Foundation just seemed to be a fine illustration of Phil’s point.

  5. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Sam Davis: Doubtless Wal-Mart’s prices would be even lower if its goods were produced by slave labor (and there’s reason to believe that some of them are). Low prices to consumers, while important, are not the only thing to consider in assessing the fairness and functionality of an economy. There’s also worker safety (I’ve had a hard time eating Tyson chicken ever since I learned that its bird wings are packaged at the expense of worker fingers) and protection of the workers’ right to organize (notably lacking in many producer nations). Without pro-union labor laws, the “free market” becomes merely a Hobbesian struggle between people with financial resources and autonomy and people without. But you won’t find me defending this Administration’s pursuit of a pointless and illegal war–nor its assessment of that war in strictly financial (rather than human) terms.

  6. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Rick Cohen: Thanks very much for your additional information and perspective on the Wal-Mart and Walton Family Foundations’ relationship to public education. I regard charter schools as private-school wolves in public sheep’s clothing (and therefore think that the Wal-Mart/Walton philanthropy actually goes two-thirds to private education), but will certainly concede that many “liberal” foundations disagree.

    You also raise another significant issue when you mention the Wal-Mart Foundation’s use of numerous small grants. This seems to me a deliberate trading off of real philanthropic impact for peace and quiet on the ground–a buying off, if you wish, of local communities. There’s certainly no law against that but it raises legitimate questions about the extent of genuine corporate philanthropy compared to the extent of pure business expense. But again, that’s a comparison not limited to Wal-Mart nor one in which the proper balance is clear.

  7. Sam Davis Says:

    Sam’s reply to the Nonprofiteer: The Hobbesian stuggle you speak of is only possible when corporate interests have special protection or special rights granted by government not available to others. At present, our system grants special rights and protections to a whole host of entities, ranging from corporations (entities which would not exist as organized today except for laws permitting their existence) to labor unions (again, which exist today in their present form only because of laws permitting their existence.) Activities, such as medieval worker safety conditions, which would not last long under a pure common law system are permitted because of government interference and distortion of a true free market.

    The most effective way to eliminate the power of big corporations is to eliminate the laws which permit their organization as they exist at present. The most effective way to bring humane standards to the workplace and living wages to the poor of the world is to institute pure common law, with sovereign juries, as the standard of all contracts and activities.

    Administrative law, or regulation by ever-shifting policy, creates an ongoing Darwinian struggle between politically-defined special interest groups, and a sense of continuing crisis, that politicians use to maintain and expand their power.

    We don’t understand this because we have been culturally hypnotized not to readily see it, and instead to see and interpret everything through the eyes of “political process is the solution for human problems.”

    If it were indeed the solution, that solution would have arrived centuries if not millenia ago.

  8. Rick Cohen Says:

    Nonprofiteer: We agree on charter schools and I don’t think I implied anything to the contrary. The Walton Family Foundation’s support of charter schools is part of their overall support for school choice. To the Waltons, charter schools, vouchers, and tax credits are all of a piece. All you need to remember is that the well over 100 organizations that actively support school vouchers are equally committed to charter schools, fitting into a theory of alternatives to traditional public schools, alternatives that are exempt from many (or in voucher-supported private schools) most of the strictures and requirements of public schools.

    On the Wal-Mart corporation’s corporate philanthropy, I unfortunately am a bit jaundiced. Most corporate philanthropy is “strategic”, geared to promoting the corporations’ bottom lines. Much of corporate philanthropic grantmaking is not publicly disclosed, as you know: corporate philanthropy through corporate foundations (that file 990PFs) has declined in recent years while direct corporate grantmaking (from the CEO, marketing departments, etc.) which is not disclosed has grown. The Wal-Mart corporation seems to have no reluctance to publicize its grantmaking through its foundation (it is the nation’s largest corporate grantmaker in terms of cash giving), and in many cases it has succeeded in buying support through its philanthropic largesse. But, in doing so, it is not significantly different than many other corporations that also use their grantmaking to burnish images, garner support, build clients, and more.

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