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The restaurant is not the foundation.

There’s a lot of noise out there about how Chick-fil-A has been redirecting donations away from Christian- and conservative-friendly organizations (like the Salvation Army) lately.  Now comes news that they have been supporting the racist- and domestic terrorist-friendly Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).  OK.  This seems odd, given the Cathy family’s generally Christian and conservative orientation.  But I think there is something that everyone is missing.

It was the Chick-fil-A Foundation that funded these organizations, not Chick-fil-A, Inc., per se. And there is a difference.

While giant corporate foundations are usually funded by donations from their namesake corporations (which is a tax dodge of ancient and hoary lineage), they are almost always entirely (or nearly entirely) separate from the companies that spawn them, again for tax and other reasons.  Unfortunately, many years of this separation historically results in progressive capture of their boards, and related mission creep due to the changing attitudes and political views of the board members over time. This is true of, for instance, the Ford Foundation, the Lilly Foundation, and many more, including a number of what are called “family foundations” (like the ones who sponsor NPR and PBS programming) that have escaped the control of the families who created them. Apparently the Chick-fil-A Foundation has joined many of these “captured” foundations in embracing progressive values.

The problem is that the parent corporation is usually not able legally to exercise direct control over the not-for-profit foundation established in its name, other than to make general recommendations for direction of investments — and sometimes not that.  It depends on the organic documents pertaining to the creation of such foundations, and the idea that they are usually created to protect corporate profits from government depredation, so that the distribution of those profits can remain under private control.  Most of the time foundations are created with a “hands-off” charter that prevents the parent corporation from being accused of tax dodgery for the purpose of controlling the money in its foundation.  Thus the disconnect between the two which means they typically have entirely separate boards and governance structures, not to mention mission statements and all that jazz.

So what’s my point?  Simply this:  Conservatives should not automatically assume that the board of Chick-fil-A the chicken restaurateur and franchiser necessarily agrees with the direction being taken by the staff and board of Chick-fil-A the charitable foundation. Dan Cathy is the CEO of Chick-fil-A (and I presume he sits on the Foundation’s board as a result), but Rodney D. Bullard is the Foundation’s Executive Director, which means that if Dan Cathy has any say over the governance of the Foundation, it’s probably limited to hiring/firing the Executive Director and possibly recommending people to sit on the advisory board (recommendations that the Foundation’s advisory board does not have to follow). Taking a look at the advisory board of the Foundation may also shed some light on why the Foundation has made this turn to the left.  I looked; there are some dodgy organizations represented, including from academia, so who knows.  It may actually be that the Executive Director and his staff are ignoring the advisory board and making donation decisions on their own.  The board is, after all, “advisory” in nature.  It may also be that Dan Cathy is guiding this effort personally, and is not the conservative Christian that Truett Cathy was.  And of course neither may be the case at all.  My guess is that the Cathys probably are as unhappy about this as everyone else, but resolving the problem will likely take time.  But I don’t know; I don’t sit on the board of Chick-fil-A or that of its foundations.

As a board member of two charitable foundations created by an organization I belong to and of which I am a trustee (which is why I am a board member of those two foundations), I learned very quickly that the creating organization has little to no control over the foundations it creates other than through whatever conduit has been established for that purpose (in our case, the Trustees/board members). And foundation board members are not required to govern the foundation based on anyone’s opinion but their own.  That is partly to maintain independence in things like investment policies (tax reasons and suchlike again) and to insulate the corporation/organization from pushback against the foundation itself.

I don’t know what any of the above means to conservatives who have so strongly supported Chick-fil-A restaurants over the last decade or so, and are now disappointed in finding out what progressive money sinks the Chick-fil-A Foundation has been supporting, but I have to say that it’s hard to boycott a good chicken sandwich and waffle fries just because a foundation — that has little or no relationship to the local franchisee’s operation and his tasty hate chicken — is suddenly betraying conservatives.

The only person who can fix this snafu, if he even can and/or is willing to do so, is Dan Cathy.  I’m willing to give him a chance to do that.  But I’m also unwilling to boycott some poor bastard franchisee who is just trying to make a living.

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