Courage Campaign and Pepsi: Is $50K the New Sell Out Price for LGBT Non-Profits?

Yesterday, we got an email from the Courage Campaign with the subject line, "We won! Here's what's next." We assumed it would be a belated fundraising appeal responding to New York's Marriage Equality Act, asking for donations to fight on the federal level.

Instead, what we found when we opened the email was, largely, a cleverly disguised ad for Pepsi. Seriously. And in the same way we recently discovered how being gay mysteriously has something to do with supporting corporate telecom mergers, we learned that drinking Pepsi also has something to do with stopping anti-LGBT bullying.

The Courage Campaign was announcing that they had won $50,000 from the Pepsi Challenge for their anti-bullying campaign, and that they are attempting to win another $50 grand in the second round of competition this summer for a training camp. We'd first learned about the Pepsi Challenge when a friend of ours, who raises significant money for a youth non-profit, declined to have that organization participate in it.

"It's a terrible product, and I'd never tell my kids that they had to go out and sell it," our friend said, fearing that even though the Courage Campaign describes their win as a "a free, no-strings-attached donation," it's really a clever way for PepsiCo to get community groups to hawk sodas for them.

Indeed, in the email from the Courage Campaign, the word Pepsi appears six times. It begins with how they "won $50,000 from Pepsi to fund our LGBT anti-bullying work!" and ends with (emphasis ours):

P.S. To cast an extra vote, you can text in our voting code (107728) to the Pepsi number (73774) once daily. Don't worry, you won't be signed up for anything without your consent.

P.P.S. Drink Pepsi? Look under the cap or inside 12-pack cardboard boxes! There are Power Voting Codes that are worth up to 100 votes each. You can either cast them yourself here, or e-mail them to pepsi@couragecampaign.org and we'll take care of getting them in!

In this message, the Courage Campaign has effectively become an outlet for Pepsi's viral marketing, all to the tune of a cheap $50,000. (Cheap, that is, relative to PepsiCo, which is #43 on the Fortune 500 and worth over $110 billion.)

Of course, the Courage Campaign is a non-profit that has done a lot of good work over the past couple of years, in terms of taking on the National Organization for Marriage and supporting the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. At the end of the day, someone has to pay their light bill, and they probably think, "Why not Pepsi?"

As they wrote in a previous email:

Today is the last day in the Pepsi Refresh Everything contest, where Pepsi is giving away $250,000 to 5 non-profits this month, and we're competing for it. The money goes to fund our work to fight bullying of LGBT kids in schools, and tell the stories that change hearts and minds across America. Using corporate money to fight gay bullies -- cool, huh?

And yet, as we posited on Twitter, the question must be asked:

Courage Campaign and Pepsi: Is $50K the New Sell Out Price for LGBT Non-Profits?

Courage tweeted back quickly:

Courage Campaign and Pepsi: Is $50K the New Sell Out Price for LGBT Non-Profits?

Yes, fine, what they do with the money will probably be for the greater good. But the parallels to another recent situation in the LGBT philanthropic world, down to the same figure of $50,000, are uncanny.

Last month, it came out that AT&T had given the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation $50,000 in donations. The money wasn't the only thing making GLAAD's subsequent support of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger look suspicious: former AT&T executive and lobbyist Troup Coronado sat on GLAAD's board. The (quid pro-quo?) result: GLAAD, a group once primarily concerned with defamation in the media against the LGBT community, suddenly reversed its former position supporting net neutrality, and then backed AT&T's merger with T-Mobile.

It wasn't the only organization AT&T bought off, but GLAAD turned out to be a cheap date. The NAACP, which also wrote a letter supporting the merger according to Politico, held out for a cool $1 million.

But AT&T (#12 on the Fortune 500) seems to have bought GLAAD's support on a $39 billion acquisition for just $50,000, which is pocket change to them. Meanwhile, the colateral damage for GLAAD was extreme: six board members, as well as Executive Director Jarrett Barrios (the only person of color heading a national LGBT organization) resigned.

There is never such thing as a "no-strings-attached donation." As Pam Spaulding wrote of the GLAAD situation:

I've blogged many times about institutional rot, where an organization reaches a stage where management goes astray from its mission and focuses on self-preservation. It's not inevitable, but the propensity for this sort of disastrous thinking increases exponentially when an organization is tempted to take a dark path.

The Courage Campaign is not there yet. They've sent plenty of non-softdrink referencing emails, signed by the likes of civil rights activists Rick Jacobs, Cleve Jones, Louis Marinelli, and Lt. Dan Choi. But GLAAD really got in trouble when they reportedly couldn't explain who - their own staff, or AT&T - was writing language into their letters and sending them to a government agency under their Executive Director's signature, alegedly without his approval.

Similarly, we can only imagine that Pepsi strongly suggested Pepsi Challenge email blasts -- even if they're about delicate topics such as bullying -- include phrases like, "Drink Pepsi? Look under the cap or inside 12-pack cardboard boxes!" (If they didn't and the Courage Campaign came up with that on their own, then they're really in trouble.)

sthrasher@villagevoice.com | @steven_thrasher


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