How to Research Corporate Efforts at Influence
The Dirt Digger’s Guide identifies political contributions, nonprofit donations, and press releases as three key factors in a corporation’s ability to influence others. Corporations spend a lot of money on donations to political and charitable causes but instead of making direct payments they create PACs and foundations. PACs are used because of laws against direct corporate political donations and foundations are used to avoid taxes.
To find a PAC, the easiest method is to go to OpenSecrets.com and search for the name of the company and PAC. For an example, the Target Corporation has a Target Corporation PAC with a profile page on Open Secrets that displays its information.
The source of the information is on the Federal Elections Commission website and you can see on the Open Secrets profile page’s section on registration details below that there is a link to the source.
The FEC.gov website has its own profile page for the Target Corp. PAC. The format is not as good as the one on Open Secrets but if you want to cite your data it is good to know the source.
A corporation’s foundation is usually easy to find with just a search on the corporation name and the word foundation. As another example, Propublica’s nonprofit explorer has a page on Target Foundation tax records.
Note that in Section B from the most recent tax filing available there is only one source of its funding, the Target Corporation itself. This is standard practice for a corporation’s foundation.
Depending on the tax record, the corporation may list the recipients in an attachment at the end, or in this case from 2015, in Statement A. Notice that Minnesota and Minneapolis appear a lot in the list. This is likely because their corporate headquarters is in Minneapolis. (an upcoming post will explain how to make these documents word-searchable with optical character recognition)
Note that the National Bureau of Economic Research published an extensive study, “Tax Exempt Lobbying: Corporate Philanthropy as a Tool For Political Influence”, (click here to read) revealing that the S&P 500 corporations commonly donate to nonprofits linked to politicians that they want to influence. (A previous post addressed how to lookup if a politician, or anyone else, is misusing a nonprofit for personal gains). See below for the summation of the study’s findings.
“In our first analysis using these data, we show that a non-profit is more than four times
more likely to receive grants from a corporate foundation if a politician sits on its board, controlling for the non-profit’s state as well as fine-grained measures of its size and sector.”
the study also found that “…a foundation is more likely to give to a politician-connected non-profit if the politician sits on committees lobbied by the firm.” The study also noted that there was a high probability that the foundation would stop donating to the nonprofit when the politician lost their bid for re-election.
Therefore, the nonprofits that receive donations can be compared to politician’s financial disclosures that usually list if they are involved in a nonprofit. A researcher can look at which committees a company lobbies and then lookup the disclosures of the politicians that sit in those committees with lobbying and disclosure records, a previous post addressed how to look up lobbying and disclosure records.
On a side note, it is important to remember that corporations use press releases as possibly the most direct way to release information and try to improve their public image. Specifically, press releases are used by corporations to influence their public, release information that is legally required to be made public, and describe/acknowledge their own activities in the manner that they want to be viewed (which is arguably true about any organization).
There are three good places to find press releases. First, almost every corporation’s website will have a page entirely dedicated to press releases. Second, press releases are often included in SEC filings so you can do a keyword search in the SEC’s EDGAR database for the phrase “press release” with the corporation’s stock ticker to ensure you only get results from the one corporation. Finally, there is a website, https://www.prnewswire.com/, that exists to post and cover corporate press releases. One of the benefits of uses this website is that you can also read other press releases on the same topic from different sources/corporations.