New Works in the Field

Corporate Philanthropy as Diversity Capital

Editors’ Note: Patricia A. Banks reflects on the significance of Black cultural patronage and diversity capital, key concepts in her new book, Black Culture, Inc.: How Ethnic Community Support Pays for Corporate America (Stanford University Press, 2022).

In 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened its doors to the public. In the years leading up to and after its opening, dozens of companies like Apple, Walmart, Target, and AT&T have given million dollar gifts to the museum. On its face these gifts may appear purely altruistic. But, in my new book, Black Culture, Inc.: How Ethnic Community Support Pays for Corporate America, I use evidence from public relations and advertising texts, along with an array of other sources, to show how this giving also benefits firms.

Black Culture, Inc. uses the case of Black cultural patronage by companies to unpack how ethnic community support (philanthropy and sponsorships related to ethnoracial minorities), and minority community support more broadly (philanthropy and sponsorships related to minority groups such as people of color, women, and LGBTQ people), function as diversity capital. Like other forms of diversity capital, minority community support projects an image of firms as valuing equity and inclusion and caring about groups like African Americans, women, and gays and lesbians. In the contemporary landscape where there is growing racial and ethnic demographic diversity, discrimination in many forms is illegal, and social attitudes along several key measures have shifted towards tolerance, the survival and sustenance of many firms depends on cultivating a reputation for valuing equity and inclusion. For example, a reputation as a firm that embraces diversity and inclusion allows firms to not only appeal to ethnoracial minorities seeking to see themselves reflected in brands, but also to White Americans who espouse values of openness. Minority community support is a key resource that companies mobilize to craft this image.

There are a variety of mechanisms through which minority community support projects an image of companies as standing up for equality. For example, the exchange of material resources between companies and ethnoracial minority nonprofits serves as a diversity sign communicating that firms care about the issues these nonprofits address and the communities they serve. There is also a discursive dimension to how minority community support works in the impression management of firms. When companies give to minority nonprofits and initiatives they often issue press releases and write about it in owned media such as corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports. Diversity framing in corporate discourse reinforces the meaning that minority community support is a manifestation of firms’ commitments to equity and inclusion. As I discuss in the final chapter of Black Culture, Inc., corporate giving in the wake of the 2020 racial justice protests clearly illustrates these processes at work.

In the weeks after the killings of George Floyd and other African Americans in the summer of 2020, thousands of protesters took to the streets to protest racism in the criminal justice system and beyond. During this period, companies used gifts to black organizations to craft an image of being not just good corporate citizens but good corporate racial citizens. As I describe in a forthcoming chapter about black cultural philanthropy and capitalism, “If corporate citizenship speaks to firms’ pursuit of social and environmental purpose then we can think about racial corporate citizenship as firms’ policies and practices aimed at contributing to racial and ethnic diversity and equity.[1]” With public attention centered on racial inequality in the weeks and years after protests, the incentives for businesses to be perceived as good corporate racial citizens has heightened. NMAAHC, the nation’s central repository for Black art and artifacts, is one of the organizations that companies rely on to cultivate this image.

Amazon, the internet and retailing services giant, and Nike, the popular sports apparel firm, both leveraged gifts to NMAAHC to present an image of good racial citizenship in the summer of 2020. Amazon released a statement announcing a $27 million donation to “organizations focused on combating systemic racism.” NMAAHC was included among the list of twelve recipients of the funds. A statement released by Nike that June mentioned a past gift by the company to NMAAHC. As I describe in Black Culture, Inc., minority community support provides short- and long-term value for companies because they reference the support in corporate discourse immediately after, and several years after, gifts (or commitments) have been made. When NMAAHC first opened in 2016, Nike was a founding donor of the museum. The $2 million gift is mentioned in the company’s 2016-2017 sustainability report. In the June 2020 statement, the gift is drawn on again to demonstrate good corporate citizenship. The statement announced a new “$40 million commitment  . . .  to support the Black community.” It also reminded readers that the company has a “long history of providing support to the communities in which they operate.” This statement included a link to a webpage (“How We Stand Up for Equality”) where the company’s status as a founding donor of NMAAHC is noted.

The discursive action of other companies, like oil and gas giants BP and Chevron, involved leveraging gifts to NMAAHC to signal good corporate racial citizenship in the years after the uprisings. In the summer of 2020, leaders of both companies issued statements about the protests. Chevron’s CEO confessed that he “share[d] the anger and pain felt by so many Americans at the recent killings of unarmed black men and women” and BP’s Chairman and President acknowledged that “Recent racial injustices in the US have spotlighted challenges in our society.” The following year BP announced its membership in the NMAAHC Corporate Leadership Council, a group of firms that support the museum at the level of $1 million or more. BP’s statement framed the gift as a response to “racial injustices” in the United States and included a link to the CEO’s statement from August 2020. In 2021, Chevron posted a statement on its website that provided an update on how the company had responded to the racial unrest over the past year. It reported that a “$15 million pledge to support Black employees and the Black community” had been made. The following year, in March 2022, Chevron issued a press release announcing the company’s membership on the NMAAHC Corporate Leadership Council and a $1 million donation to the museum. The $15 million pledge is referenced in this statement which reads in part, “In 2020, Chevron announced a $15 million investment to support the Black community aimed at addressing barriers to equity—a commitment that aligns with our goal to improve lives, create opportunities and power the world forward.”

During the uprisings in 2020 and the two years after, NMAAHC has proven to be a useful partner in the racial image management of big companies. As arguably the most important Black history and culture museum in the United States, a gift to NMAAHC signifies that firms are committed to African Americans and equity. Corporate discourse that references the racial uprisings directly and indirectly clarifies and deepens these meanings.

Corporate giving to NMAAHC in connection to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is just one example of how minority community support functions as diversity capital for firms. In ongoing research, I am investigating other cases where corporate philanthropy serves as diversity capital, such as corporate support of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) as well as civil rights, women’s, and LGTBQ organizations. As is the case for corporate giving to NMAAHC, in many ways these gifts are a win-win. Companies receive a reputational benefit and nonprofits and other recipients receive economic, symbolic, and other resources. For example, the public-private partnership model of Smithsonian funding requires that museums like NMAAHC receive a hefty portion of their operating budgets from non-governmental sources. For NMAAHC, corporate America provides a not insignificant amount of those dollars. When firms write about big gifts to NMAAHC in corporate discourse there are also symbolic benefits for the museum. It receives visibility and is legitimated as an organization worthy of being a beneficiary of large donations. These gifts also provide important benefits to the public such as greater access to art and artifacts that relate to the African American experience. But, there can also be costs.

In certain cases, minority community support functions as a form of diversity airbrushing. In other words, it presents an image of companies as champions of equity and inclusion when the reality is far more complicated. For example, the polished images of companies discursively constructed around minority community support sometimes belie harsh realities such as business practices with negative environmental and social impacts. This is brought into stark relief when considering black community support by oil and gas companies. While there is clear scientific evidence that fossil fuels pose environmental threats, and there is growing criticism that climate change has an especially harmful impact on African Americans, the narratives that oil and gas firms tell around black community support often highlight how they are committed to racial equity.

A similar dynamic is at work around what I call misaligned giving, or donations that support opposites sides of the same cause. This incongruent giving is present in patterns of gifts to Black civil rights organizations and donations to politicians from corporate Political Action Committees (PACs)—for example, companies that give money to nonprofits such as the Equal Justice Initiative and also to legislators who voted against bills like the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Misaligned giving is also illustrated by the case of companies that donate to the NAACP and give money to politicians with an “F” rating on the nonprofit’s civil rights scorecard. Misaligned gifts like these could arguably be viewed as partly cancelling one another other out—one stream of corporate money flows to an organization championing civil rights while another stream goes to politicians who that same organization charges with undermining the cause. However, since minority community support, unlike political giving, is often foregrounded in corporate discourse, it is likely that many stakeholders remain unaware of these misaligned donations.

It’s tempting to believe that companies writing big checks to nonprofits do so as a simple and straightforward solution for solving intractable social problems. Indeed, corporate giving plays a vital role in providing material and symbolic resources to nonprofits that are addressing racial and other forms of inequality. Still, as Black Culture, Inc. reveals, there’s often more to minority community support than meets the eye.

-Patricia A. Banks

Patricia A. Banks is Co-Editor-in-Chief of Poetics and Chair and Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of four books, including two on philanthropy and race: Black Culture Inc: How Ethnic Community Support Pays for Corporate America (Stanford University Press, 2022) and Diversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums (Routledge, 2019).

[1] Banks, Patricia A. Forthcoming. “Corporate Racial Citizenship: How Black Cultural Philanthropy Reinforces Capitalism.” In Museums as Ritual Sites: Civilizing Rituals Reconsidered, edited by Lieke Wijnia and James S. Bielo. New York, NY; Abingdon, Oxon; Routledge.

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