Inside the Charity Industrial Complex, Where Corporations Profit Off Your Love of the Military

December 5, 2014

By Richard Allen Smith via Guardian

Americans have more confidence in the United States military than any other institution in the country and many American corporations are actively cashing in on that trust by associating themselves with veterans. Obviously corporations do not make the sacrifices that have earned veterans warm feelings from so many Americans. But some of those very same corporations have actively profited from harming veterans and active duty service members.

Call it “camo-washing”: brands associate themselves with the military and veterans through corporate sponsorships or even by putting actors who are pretending to be troops in their commercials. It’s a time-honored tradition in the breast cancer industrial complex and the corporate equivalent of putting a yellow ribbon magnet on your car. But corporations do little out of sheer philanthropy. They’re making money off it.

Mostly, camo-washing is an unethical marketing tactic that amounts to a mild annoyance for those who served. But camo-washing becomes more insidious when it involves corporations that prey on troops and their families. It becomes nauseating when non-profits that claim to actually help military members and veterans knowingly assist those same corporations earn absolution.

For example, the lists of corporate sponsors for military- and veteran-oriented charities are a who’s-who of financial services corporations. These corporations are some of the largest practitioners of camo-washing and many have already cashed in on veterans in other unethical or illegal ways.

Consider HBO’s Veteran’s Day “Concert for Valor” on the national mall: while the concert raised welcomed funds for great organizations like the Pat Tillman Foundation and the Fisher House Foundation, the production also counted JP Morgan Chase among its corporate sponsors. JP Morgan Chase settled lawsuits for overcharging for loans and illegally foreclosing on homes belonging to troops, vets and their families, and came to a settlement in 2012 with the Justice Department for potential violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.

JP Morgan Chase also sponsored November’s “Heroes Gala”, an annual fundraiser for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) – which also brands much of its swag with the Miller High Life logo, despite a demonstrated connection between alcohol consumption and the 22 suicides every day among veterans.

Or a look at the corporate sponsors page on the website of Student Veterans of America (SVA) also shows the logo of JP Morgan Chase, alongside the other perpetrators of wrongful foreclosures on military members’ homes: Citigroup (also a sponsor of IAVA), Bank of America (also a sponsor of the Wounded Warrior Project), Wells Fargo (also a sponsor of Got Your 6) and Morgan Stanley (also a sponsor of the USO). SVA also receives support from Prudential, a company that just this year settled a class action suit over the company illegally withholding and profiting from life insurance payouts for service members who were killed in action.

None of this is to suggest that military and veterans charities should avoid private-sector funding. But as the mil-vet philanthropic space grows beyond its traditional base of veterans service organizations (such as the Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion), it is time for charities in our community to consider the costs of allowing corporations to associate themselves with our service.

Charities should ask themselves whether a given company’s products or services are good for veterans and military families before lending that company legitimacy, allowing it to use a charity’s logo or be listed as an official sponsor. It wouldn’t prevent particular corporations from giving, but keeping an eye out for corporate camo-washers would stop those that have wronged members of our armed services from wrapping themselves in a flag and a yellow ribbon to sell to us – and our supporters – once again.

Photo: Ryan Clement