Monday, July 21, 2003

Corporate benefactors lined up on the dais of the Miami Beach Convention Center last week as the NAACP’s national convention wound down, toting their generosity in the form of huge checks made out to the civil rights group.

One by one, corporate spokesmen from Wal-Mart, Shell Oil, General Motors and American Airlines announced donations ranging from $100,000 to $250,000 to the tax-exempt group, whose stated goal is “to advocate civil rights of minority groups in the U.S.A.”

Then the Wachovia banking corporation produced a $1 million contribution to the NAACP’s education initiatives, prompting an audible gasp and a standing ovation from the audience.

“It’s important that we celebrate these corporations that share our vision,” said Hilary Shelton, who leads the NAACP’s Washington office. “It is great to have these friends.”

Conservatives regularly complain about the NAACP’s tax-exempt status and its assertions of being apolitical. They publicly question the group’s affinity for left-wing causes, its spending of millions on lawsuits to fight Republican initiatives such as school vouchers, and its get-out-the-vote efforts in areas that are overwhelmingly Democratic.

The NAACP is a ferocious opponent of school vouchers, which allow students to attend private schools using taxpayer money. The group has devoted considerable resources to fighting politicians who support almost any education option outside the nation’s government-run schools.

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, in his keynote speech for this year’s convention, said Republicans appeal “to the dark underside of American culture, to that minority of Americans who reject democracy and equality.”

The big-bucks corporate largesse operates as a primary engine for the 500,000-member National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 2001, the NAACP rolled up $3 million during its annual convention in New Orleans, according to its tax form for that year, the most recent available. This year’s total has not yet been released.

The amount amassed at the 2001 convention represented more than a quarter of the $11 million the NAACP reported in cash donations for the year. The group received a total of $28.8 million in contributions, including $17.8 million in non-cash donations.

All told — adding in sales of assets, interest revenue and membership dues — the NAACP operated in 2001 with a $40 million budget, a 135 percent increase from 1998, when the group reported revenue of $17 million.

Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP and a former Democratic congressman from Maryland, made $250,000 in 2001, according to the tax return. That salary is not considered exorbitant for a group with such considerable resources.

The NAACP also benefits from individual donors. Anonymous contributors gave millions in 2001, including one person who donated $2 million and two who contributed $1.2 million apiece.

The NAACP, in a statement on its tax form, said those contributions were contingent on anonymity.

“Unique circumstances apply to this organization, i.e. a history of economic and physical retaliation against its publicly identified support[ers],” the statement reads.

But at last week’s convention, it was all about grip-and-grin photos of the check, Mr. Bond, Mr. Mfume and representatives of their organization’s benefactors.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s $150,000 check was not dedicated to any single endeavor of the NAACP, and it was a rare contribution to a national group for a company that prefers to donate money in the towns and cities that are home to its 3,200 stores nationwide.

Donations to the NAACP come because “they are well-recognized and well-respected,” Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark said. “We benefit from their expertise.”

Wal-Mart gave $200 million last year to local charities, foundations and groups, Miss Clark said.

Wachovia Corp., long active in promoting education in poverty-ridden areas, has sponsored national NAACP events in the past several years, including a summit on education last year in Atlanta.

The company, through its foundation, donated a total of $42.7 million last year to groups such as the NAACP.

“What we try to look for are organizations whose objectives align with ours,” said Alison Rice, a spokeswoman for the Wachovia Foundation, which allocates the company’s donations.

“We found that our platform and theirs are the same,” Miss Rice said. “Before we had sponsored conferences. But this [donation] is an expansion of that.”

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