Sure, I'd Love to Donate!

When a big customer plays fund-raiser, it's hard to say no

By Kevin Kelly

I've learned a lot about the world working in my family's plastic bag manufacturing business, but one of the most startling lessons has been about politics--political fund-raising, to be exact. My education began four years ago, when a large customer called and asked us to contribute to a candidate running for office--in another state. My brother, sister, and I debated the merits of the request. After all, we knew little about the candidate and nothing about the issues driving the race. In the end, we sent a check.

Why? Well, how do you say no to an important customer? Certainly we worried that if we declined, we might drive a wedge between ourselves and a company vital to our financial health. And it's just such fears that fund-raisers and their political allies must count on when they send out letters asking for a helping hand.

I wonder if the politicians who benefit from our contributions care that we often act more out of concern for our customer relationship than their particular ideas or positions or abilities. Probably not. Still, it must be one of the strange little secrets of politics that at least a portion of the funds raised for each election are produced by customers putting the heat on their suppliers.

I can't say I resent the intrusion as much as I find it curious. I always, naively, assumed that candidates raised money by tapping the pocketbooks of true believers and companies or groups that had some immediate reason to be interested in their help. But with the cost of political campaigns skyrocketing, there is little wonder why candidates and their backers try to cast the widest net possible. While leaning on your suppliers for dough smells of extortion, it's also true that if my customer believes deeply enough that the candidate will help their business, well, then that politician should benefit my little company, too.

This kind of fund-raising has played out often enough now to become a trend. We've contributed to the coffers of a California gubernatorial candidate, a congressman who represents the district where most of our customers are based, and a state assembly hopeful favored by another customer. Between personal and corporate contributions over the past three years, I've given about $5,000 in $500 and $1,000 blocks.

In each case, for one reason or another, the individual was agreeable to us. For instance, the congressman, Sam Farr (D-Calif.), represents the Salinas Valley and has crafted law--including laws encouraging organic farming--that have boosted agriculture in California. Since we sell most of our packaging to produce growers, Farr's legislative bent has been good for us, too.

This trend in fund-raising isn't without precedent. Certainly it's a cousin of the long-standing corporate practice of hitting up suppliers and employees for contributions to charities, like those often high-pressure annual United Way International appeals. I truly resented those when I was an employee, since I already gave what little discretionary cash I had to my favorite charities. But now I find myself putting the arm on people, too. Just last month I began writing to our local suppliers asking them to open their wallets to help create an endowment for our public high school district that will be used to fund extracurricular activities like football and the arts.

What would we do if we were asked to support a candidate or cause we found odious? Good question. The fact of the matter remains that, armed with their financial cudgel, the customers clearly have the upper hand when they come asking for money. That's why I suppose they make such effective fund-raisers. Fortunately, so far, our customers are moderate enough--and smart enough--to choose candidates that we can find some appeal in. If the day comes that they're not--well, that's one business decision I can put off without causing any harm.

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Kelly is an officer of Emerald Packaging Inc. in Union City, Calif.

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