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In-kind gifts play greater role at this year’s DNC

Convention won’t take corporate or PAC cash but allows other donations

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Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of software from Microsoft. Computers, printers and tech support from Hewlett-Packard. Printing and supplies worth $150,000 from Xerox. And as much as $1 million worth of office space from Duke Energy.

Those sorts of donations from companies to the Democratic National Convention, known as in-kind contributions, are taking on added importance this year. That’s because convention organizers are not accepting corporate cash to stage the convention, but have no similar limit on products and services.

The convention host committee must raise $36.6 million for the convention itself, and the in-kind donations will count toward that goal. The host committee has set up another nonprofit organization to accept corporate money to promote Charlotte.

In-kind donations won’t be disclosed until two months after the convention. But visitors to Charlotte will probably encounter them at every turn during convention week, from the app that delegates tap to vote, to the paper their agendas are printed on.

At the same time, other businesses have made investments that may be considered in-kind donations when all is reported to the federal government.

Creating ways to help

The Carolina Panthers are turning over Bank of America Stadium to the convention for President Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech rent-free, though a spokesman didn’t know whether that would be considered a donation. And Time Warner Cable announced last week that it would provide free wireless Internet uptown during convention week, but a spokeswoman said the company considered it to be civic support rather than a donation.

With traditional corporate contributions restricted, political observers say that these in-kind contributions are more important this year as a means for corporations to engender some political goodwill. Companies will also host lunches and sponsor events.

Convention organizers say they’re on track to raise the $36.6 million, although numerous reports indicate that fundraising could be falling short. Several insiders also say the Democratic Party’s move to suppress corporate influence in the convention has also made businesses less enthusiastic about chipping in – both with cash and in-kind contributions.

“The return on investment in terms of tickets to the convention hall and hotel rooms is still pretty limited,” said one consultant with knowledge of the matter. “Even companies pledging donations to the host committee, they’re still not really seeing the access they expected.”

Host committee spokeswoman Suzi Emmerling said the committee has set no specific target for in-kind donations. She said the committee will consider any contribution that would relieve its budget.

The host committee has also offered to give businesses “marketing exposure” in exchange for in-kind donations, according to requests for proposals to provide entertainment, food and audio/visual equipment for the large media welcome event.

Many donations are also tax deductible. But the larger benefit, observers say, is the chance to be close to the people who regulate industry.

“The big thing that’s always on sale at these conventions is access,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor for the Washington-based nonprofit Sunlight Foundation. “There are opportunities for donors, whether they be cash donors or in-kind donors, to have access to politicians and schmooze them. That’s priceless.”

Small part of Denver’s total

Though the full amount of in-kind donations won’t be known until later, giving to the host committee in Denver for the 2008 Democratic convention provides a glimpse of what could be coming to Charlotte.

Denver’s host committee, which was not prevented from accepting corporate money, reported receiving $5.46 million worth of in-kind donations, a fraction of the $61 million it raised. The largest corporations primarily gave cash, but also chipped in with everything from tech support (Best Buy) to beer (Molson Coors Brewing).

Microsoft made the largest in-kind donation, giving $640,000 worth of computer software. It will have a similar role in Charlotte, as the “official innovation provider” of the convention and the host committee.

The company will be donating use of productivity and workplace software, Microsoft said in a statement, helping build an app delegates will use to vote in kiosks around the convention floor.

Microsoft will also work with the city of Charlotte to develop new permit-processing software for the convention and beyond.

In Denver, Staples made the greatest number of donations, nearly 400, totaling roughly $230,000 worth of office supplies. The company, which this year is being touted as one of Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s primary success stories at Bain Capital, did not return calls.

United Airlines, which has a hub in Denver, gave $61,000 worth of plane tickets. US Airways, which has its largest hub in Charlotte, will not be following suit.

Smaller companies, too, got in on the action in Denver. A number of local restaurants and law firms catered events or provided boxed lunches.

Charlotte’s three largest law firms – Womble Carlyle, Moore and Van Allen and McGuire Woods LLP – did not return calls asking if they would do the same.

Lower-profile support

One of the benefits of an in-kind donation, said UNC Charlotte political science professor Eric Heberlig, is that it’s a lower-profile way to support the convention.

“For the public, a $1 million contribution gets their attention,” he said. “Trying to figure out what the cost of copy paper is … that’s pretty dry.”

Still, a company can get tripped up.

In May, the Democratic National Convention Committee decided to give back Walmart’s donation of $50,000 in gift cards after labor groups complained.

But an in-kind donation also means the host committee can use its cash for other things, like salaries or delegate parties. Every donated ream of copy paper could mean a better bash.

“It’s certainly very critical,” Heberlig said. “But it isn’t as sexy.”

Dunn: 704-358-5235; Twitter: @andrew_dunn
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