Several big corporations sponsored the annual convention last week for National Action Network, Al Sharpton’s in-the-red nonprofit, according to a list obtained by National Review.
Sponsors included AT&T, Viacom, Walmart, Perennial Strategy Group, Combs Enterprises, Comcast Corporation, McDonald’s, Ronald Perelman, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Forest City Ratner, Time Warner Cable, Barney’s, Coca-Cola, Essence Communications, Ford Division, Home Depot, Crystal McCrary and Raymond J. McGuire, the NBA, Verizon, Colgate Palmolive, Macy’s, NASCAR, OraSure Technologies Inc., Best Buy, Greentrack Inc., the IM Foundation, Con Edison, and Entergy.
Most of the sponsors in this list failed to respond or declined when NR sent inquiries regarding their sponsorship and whether it could be considered an endorsement of National Action Network.
The 2015 convention listed 35 sponsors, fewer than previous events have boasted. Sharpton’s 60th birthday bash featured at least 45 sponsors—ranked at levels including “activist,” “preacher,” “hair,” and “track suit”—and raised around $1 million for the nonprofit, according to the New York Daily News and records reviewed by NR. A 2012 event listed 42 sponsors; a 2010 event, 45.
Then again, sponsorship of Sharpton’s nonprofit can prove controversial. Recently, the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) wrote an open letter urging NASCAR to “end its financial support of Al Sharpton and his organization,” citing “the violence and loss of life that have followed Sharpton’s agitation” as well as “the financial irregularities that have characterized Sharpton’s nonprofit groups, for-profit companies, and political campaigns.”
(NLPC is a government-watchdog group that successfully pushed the Federal Election Commission to levy fines against Sharpton for his campaign-finance shortcomings after his 2004 presidential run.)
A NASCAR spokesperson told NR:
NASCAR and its leaders participate in a wide variety of opportunities to engage both the professional sports industry and our fans on relevant topics important to the continued growth of our sport. With that said, our involvement at a specific event should not be taken as any tacit endorsement of any positions or views or beliefs presented their beyond those offered by our leaders, NASCAR participants.
Representatives from Ford and Time Warner Cable explicitly said that sponsorship should not necessarily be interpreted as an endorsement of National Action Network’s positions.
The NLPC has alleged that much of the support for National Action Network is the result of a shakedown. “Sharpton has enriched himself and NAN for years by threatening companies with bad publicity if they don’t come to terms with him,” NLPC chairman Ken Boehm told the New York Post in January. “Put simply, Sharpton specializes in shakedowns.”
Speaking at the convention, Sharpton alluded to these allegations:
The right wing says that civil-rights groups shake [businesses] down. No, we’re trying to shake up a new relationship, because if companies do business in our community, do they do business with our community? Do we get the contracts, do we get the opportunities? Because they’re going to be in business — the question is, are we going to be in business and who do they do business with?
None of the sponsors that NR reached out to answered questions about whether their support was the result of a shakedown. But other sources close to Sharpton told NR that businesses support Sharpton and National Action Network because it’s an opportunity to engage black consumers and increase their share of the market.
#related#National Action Network provides companies with “high visibility within a community that typically companies don’t have a great deal of visibility with,” says one source familiar with the nonprofit’s corporate operations in Washington, D.C. “Realistically, it’s less what they get out of it, more what the companies [do]. . . . National Action Network is viewed in the corporate community as a fairly effective organization, whether it’s on the consumer side or the corporate side.”
Several companies reached by NR echoed similar sentiments. “Time Warner Cable participates in the democratic process and supports many civil-rights groups and organizations across the political spectrum to encourage discussions about important public policies,” a spokesperson for the company said. Comcast’s spokesperson cited “the important work done by civil-rights groups,” while Ford’s rep said the company “participates in marketing opportunities that help us reach a broad range of customers.”
A 2010 National Action Network document obtained by NR detailed the “benefits” associated with different levels of sponsorship. Sponsors that donated $100,000 — the highest level of support listed — could expect the “opportunity to appear bi-monthly on Reverend Sharpton’s nationally syndicated radio show which broadcasts in over 40 media markets 5 days a week,” as well as recognition on National Action Network’s website, publications, and the convention journal.
It’s unclear whether the 2015 convention offered similar perks to donors, or how much the corporations gave. Only Con Ed volunteered information to NR about its level of support — a $10,000 table purchase.
This year’s National Action Network also enjoyed support from several unions, including the American Federation of Teachers, the Service Employees International Union and its Local 1199, the American Federation of Government Employees, and the New York Hotel Trades Council.
Sponsorship provides much-needed cash for National Action Network, which has long endured financial problems. Though NR could not obtain National Action Network’s new 2014 tax filings by deadline, the nonprofit ended 2013 with negative assets of $1.33 million, including $819,000 in unpaid tax liabilities. National Action Network paid Sharpton a $241,545 salary in 2013, also owing him $328,881 for loans made to NAN.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center.
Editor’s Note: This piece originally incorrectly listed the National Association of Insurance Commissioners as a sponsor of NAN’s annual conference. While the list of sponsors obtained by National Review included a “NAIC,” a spokesman for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners confirmed that that organization was not in fact a sponsor. We regret the error.