The latest example of how a philanthropist’s charitable activity can create trouble for his business dealings comes in the form of oil and media tycoon Philip Anschutz, who has recently come under fire after it was discovered he gives money to “hate groups.” In fact, most of the organizations in question are simply socially conservative pressure groups like the Family Research Council and the National Christian Foundation, most with a well-established history of opposing LGBT rights and supporting right-of-center political positions. Such groups are controversial, to be sure, but perhaps not the “extremist groups” that they’re portrayed as by liberal watchdogs like the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Still, it hardly matters. For those of Anschutz’s class—mega-rich philanthropists and captains of industry—the first rule of charity is often: ‘Do no harm.’ The minute a cause or organization becomes unpalatable or otherwise starts to attract negative attention, it’s time to cut the chord. Thus Anschutz’s total about face when confronted over the controversial donations. “Neither I nor the [Anschutz] Foundation fund any organization with the purpose or expectation that it would finance anti-LGBTQ initiatives,” the billionaire said in a statement, “and when it has come to my attention […] that certain organizations either the Foundation or I have funded have been supporting such causes, we have immediately ceased all contributions to such groups.”
Fair enough. Perhaps Anschutz really didn’t realize that he was donating (relatively small amounts) to some prominent conservative groups out there. Perhaps he really was surprised to learn that these groups were as heavily involved in the ever-messy culture wars as they are. More likely is that Anschutz quickly realized the whole thing was bad for his brand, especially as the owner of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which puts on the famous Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. As a mecca of enlightened millennials and image-conscious entertainment types, Coachella is the last place in the world you’d expect to find donors to the Family Research Council. So Anschutz knows his customers, at least, and simply calibrated accordingly.
In other sectors, of course, denunciation by the SPLC as a “hate group” is good for business. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported late in 2016 on the charitable status of rightwing groups, including organizations like Jjihad Watch and the ominously named Californians for Population Stabilization. One of the groups, ACT for America, which describes itself as the “NRA of national security” was all too happy to be labeled extreme. ACT for America president Bridgette Gabriel told the Chronicle that donations to her group had increased since the designation by SPLC: “People […] stepped up to support us because they were upset by the […] labeling,” she said.
So the market signals between the liberal and conservative nonprofit worlds are obviously very different. What’s interesting about this story is that Anschutz, who by all accounts has supported Republicans for years (he donated to Mike Pence in 2006 and participated in a top-level GOP policy summit in early 2016), felt no pressure whatsoever to defend his donations. That’s his prerogative, of course, but it shows the strength and unanimity of public opinion within the rarefied world of the elite donor class at the moment.