A Charitable Backlash

I first read about Mukit Hossain in The Washington Post back in August.

“Hossain called a meeting of civic and religious leaders, many of whom had worked quietly for years helping day laborers learn English, find housing and get medical care. He proposed that they join forces and collaborate under a name with a distinct mission: Project Hope and Harmony, whose sole goal would be to create and run an orderly site for itinerant laborers,” Carol Morello wrote.

This past Sunday, Mukit Hossain’s name appeared once again in the pages of The Washington Post.

“Mukit Hossain never expected his charity work to impede his business career. For months he spent his days trying to launch a new Internet phone company, and his nights trying to raise support to build centers for day laborers in Herndon. But when his name started popping up in newspapers as an advocate of the day laborers, the venture capital firm that was about to invest $1.5 million in his start-up company suddenly backed out of the deal, he said,” Ellen McCarthy wrote.

The first article featuring Hossain was inspiring. It told the story of a man who, moved by the plight of others, decided it was time to help. The story also painted a picture of how Islamic religious values, under an intense international spotlight in this day and age, can be translated positively into action. The story was not only inspiring, but a darn good piece of press for a cause.

The second article featuring Hossain was much less than inspiring. Hossain, along with software giant Microsoft and The Washington Post Co. (publisher of The Washington Post, of course), were featured because of how their support for charitable and/or political causes impacted their businesses. Microsoft, for example, was blasted by critics – inside and outside of the company – for originally backing a gay rights bill in Washington state and then pulling their support. The Washington Post Co., meanwhile, received extensive “blasting” for sponsoring a Pentagon-backed event. Critics said the event was pro-war and that the newspaper publisher could not possibly report unbiasedly on certain issues. The company eventually withdrew its sponsorship, but not before other media outlets landed a black-eye-inducing punch.

“In the last five or six years, there’s been a sharper focus on contributions that apply to the interest of the business – many corporations now have a philosophy of, ‘When in doubt, leave it out,'” Curt Weeden, president of the Association for Corporate Contributions Professionals, told The Washington Post.

Weeden’s comments, unfortunately, show how fine the line between charity and calamity can be. Hossain’s experience proves that charitable actions with political overtones (the day laborer/immigration issue is a certainly a hot topic) can hurt a business. In contrast, Wal-Mart has recently shown us that going above and beyond the call of duty in the name of charity, as the company did during and after Hurricane Katrina, can put a company in a positive light (at least temporarily). So if the line is fine, where is it drawn?

As far as I’m concerned, the line is drawn when the media and/or the public become involved.

Hossain expressed surprise that his venture’s financing was pulled due to his involvement in the day laborer issue, but I’m not surprised. I’ve dealt with enough venture capitalists, corporate executives and other upper-tax-bracket types to know that these people don’t just throw money around and ignore their own values in the process. (Yes, we can joke that the ultra-rich don’t have values, but this would be a mistake.) Clearly, the people willing to back Hossain’s company had their qualms about doing business with someone who supported a political cause they either oppose or don’t want to be involved in. This is unfortunate, but not unfair.

Most retail businesses don’t let employees wear political buttons or express religious beliefs for a reason. Customers want to shop, not be sold on a political candidate or preached to. The employee represents the company, and thus represents the views of the company, which in most cases means that no views are supposed to be expressed. The public is, thus, left to shop, which is exactly what a retailer wants them to do.

Companies should, I believe, be at the forefront of charitable giving – in time, resources and money. The code of corporate social responsibility should extend from small businesses to multi-national corporations. However, when choosing to promote a charity or cause, companies must exercise restraint. As The Washington Post article notes, most companies don’t have a problem promoting breast cancer-related charities, but who wants their name attached to a rectum cancer charity? Likewise, companies may want to support a political cause – be it a bill or candidate – but attaching a corporate name to politics can mean the loss of business.

As you’re no doubt well aware, we live in a politically charged world where calls for consumer boycotts are made each day. Likewise, there is more transparency in the business world these days (thanks to both the media and the blogosphere), as evidenced by Halliburton’s PR problems. Online repositories of campaign donations also make it easier for critics to attack corporate executives and company political action committees.

With all the evidence out there, it would be easy to say that giving to charities and political causes is a mistake. Well, at least promoting such giving would be a mistake. However, I’m inclined to believe that, by and large, the majority of consumers don’t care very much. If we did care so much, I’d imagine companies such as ExxonMobile would be out of business, and pro-gun-control advocates would boycott companies that do business with gunmakers, or whose executives are National Rifle Association members. The same goes for pro-choice advocates, who no doubt would not want to put money in the pockets of those supporting pro-life candidates.

Hossain, unfortunately, serves as an example of what can go wrong when a company or individual stands his moral ground. But to suggest that individuals or companies don’t have a right, or in some cases, an obligation, to give would be ludicrous. A fine line must be treaded, but it can be if you’re aware of the forces out there that may not like what you support.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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