Two days into the summer of 2011, a group called the National Summer Learning Association issued 10 press releases across the nation, heralding the award of $11.5 million from the Wal-Mart Foundation -- one of the largest ever made to a single group -- to create summer learning programs for middle-school age children. The gift was remarkable not so much for its focus on learning, but for its focus on location.
Although Wal-Mart stores are predominately in suburban and rural areas -- these summer grants were targeted exclusively to large urban centers, like Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. These metro markets happen to be prime sites for Wal-Mart store expansions. In a June 23rd press release, Wal-Mart and its Foundation jointly rolled out a "summer giving campaign" of meals, learning programs, and jobs for youth.
In an interview with Charlie Rose six months earlier, Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke played his urban card: "And here in New York City or other urban markets, there is a big opportunity. We've started more initiatives in the urban markets of the U.S., including small stores...And I think you could look at other large urban markets in the U.S....we see a lot of customers here, in Chicago, Washington, and other large cities that really just don't have access to Wal-Mart product and Wal-Mart prices, that we see as a real opportunity."
The Wal-Mart Foundation's giving is joined at the hip to Wal-Mart Realty's growth plans. Those growth plans are largely dependent on the support of city councilors and big city Mayors. Wal-Mart enlists local politicians whenever they have a foamboard check and a press conference.
On July 5th in Brooklyn, for example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg played a prominent role at a news conference announcing a $4 million donation by Wal-Mart to a summer jobs for young people. Bloomberg called Wal-Mart "one of the greatest corporate citizens in the country." New York Times blogger Javier Hernandez wondered at the location chosen for Wal-Mart's press conference. "Mr. Bloomberg," Hernandez wrote, "a longtime defender of free-market principles, brushed aside a question about whether it was coincidental that the news conference, held at a recreation center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, was just miles from one of the company's potential construction sites." But the reporter added, "the company's donation...seemed to help win over some skeptics." One of those skeptics was Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, who lauded Wal-Mart's donation as 'a good, major first step.' "
Wal-Mart's giving in Washington, D.C. followed the same script. The retailer recruited D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, who was quoted in the retailer's press release as saying, "I am pleased that Wal-Mart has partnered with us to support our young people in having a healthy and productive summer."
But summer giving has not gone well in Boston, where Mayor Tom Menino has resisted the company's solicitations to link arms. This past week The Boston Business Journal reported that Wal-Mart was seeking to open its first Boston store in Roxbury. Menino was described as a "staunch opponent" of the retailer. The Mayor's antipathy to Wal-Mart goes back at least six years. In 2005 Menino darkened Wal-Mart's plans to develop a store in Downtown Crossing, in the heart of his city. Menino was quoted by the Boston Herald as saying, "Wal-Mart is not fair to labor. I think it's important to be fair to workers."
The Boston Herald quoted Mayor Menino five months ago as saying, "I'm very concerned about how they treat their employees ... I want to make sure they are good jobs, that their employees get health insurance, retirement plans -- all the benefits everyone else gets."
The Boston Business Journal also said that Menino criticized Wal-Mart for "throwing money around" trying to 'buy support' with its donations. Menino revealed that he had had a visit from the president of the Wal-Mart Founation, who tried to convert him to the cause. But Menino said politely, "We agreed to disagree."
In charge of all these political ops by the Wal-Mart Foundation is Leslie Dach, who has been Wal-Mart's executive vice president of Corporate Affairs for the past five years. Part of Dach's portfolio at Wal-Mart includes "reputation management," government relations,and philanthropy. A refugee of the Democractic National Committee, the Clinton White House, and the Kerry for President Campaign of 2004, Dach appreciates the full political value of the Wal-Mart Foundation dollar.
Dach and Wal-Mart are fixated on breaking into metro markets, so it is not surprising that their employer's philanthropy reflects that mission. Last Febrary, Dach appeared on the Colbert Report. The following exchange occurred:
Colbert: You basically are your own government. You've got your own health care, you've got your own guns -- you're ready to take over the United States.
Dach: Well, we would like to move into New York.
Colbert: Where in New York would you like to put a store, like the Queens, or Brooklyn?
Dach: Well, really almost all those places would be good.
Colbert: Well you can't put it in Manhattan, because the island's not wide enough for one of your stores.
Wal-Mart's efforts to "take over the United States" are what drives its philanthropic agenda. The Wal-Mart Foundation has become a major political operation, one which uses donations like campaign contributions made to better itself. Or, to put it in Walspeak, "to manage its reputation."
Wal-Mart's 'Summer Giving Campaign' is thinly-veiled attempt to "buy support," as Mayor Menino has suggested. In the face of this lavish giving, local elected officials must now make an equally political decision: Is our city for sale to Wal-Mart Realty?
Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters. He is the author of "The Case Against Wal-Mart."