Bank of America-HSUS partnership ruffles feathers

Jun 29, 2012

Bank of America may soon be feeling some heat from farmers and ranchers as word ricocheted across the internet that the financial giant is offering a Visa credit card in partnership with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

The BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ Visa® card for HSUS will reportedly transfer $60 to the multi-million dollar animal rights foundation for every credit account opened, and transfer another 25 cents for every $100 dollars spent on the card. The card can be applied for on the “charitable causes” section of the Bank of America website as a “nature and wildlife cause” and also on the HSUS website.

The controversial partnership was recently brought to light by the Washington-based non-profit foundation Animal Agriculture Alliance, which has strongly encouraged members of the agricultural community to express concern to Bank of America about the offering.

HSUS has been widely accused of promoting itself to the public as a charity benefitting homeless animals while putting the main focus of their activities on fundraising and lobbying to promote anti-agriculture policy. In 2011, non-profit charity watchdog American Institute of Philanthropy gave HSUS a near-failing grade of “D” based largely on the small percentage (less than 50 percent) of HSUS’ budget that actually goes to funding the organization’s programs, in contrast with the comparatively large amount spent on fundraising and executive salaries. HSUS reportedly spends one half of 1 percent of its budget on supporting pet shelters.

Alliance CEO Kay Johnson Smith communicated that message directly to Brian Moynihan, Bank of America CEO, in a June 18 letter expressing her “dismay” that the financial institution would support HSUS, which Smith called out as being hostile to animal agriculture.

“HSUS is a radical animal rights organization that is not affiliated with local animal shelters and instead uses its more than $100 million budget to threaten America’s hardworking farmers and ranchers,” Smith stated, adding that “[w]hile many Americans mistakenly believe HSUS is the national organization affiliated with local animal shelters, very little of its funding is used for hands-on animal care. Instead, HSUS uses its resources to attack farmers and ranchers with legislation, litigation, and public relations smear campaigns.”

Smith went on to note that the Alliance has been a client of Bank of America for over 20 years but is reevaluating whether that relationship can be maintained, given the bank’s support of HSUS.

“Your decision to partner with HSUS has prompted us to reconsider our banking relationship, and we will urge our members to do the same,” Smith concluded, pointing out that the Alliance represents over 2 million individuals across the agricultural industries.

Although Bank of America did not reply to a request for an interview, company spokesperson Betty Riess last week told Capital Press that the bank has been a long-time supporter of the agriculture industries, with over $26 billion in loan commitments to the agricultural sector.

“We value our relationships with our agribusiness clients, which include the animal agriculture industry,” Riess told the Capital Press.

Riess also appeared to try and distance Bank of America from HSUS’ political position, maintaining that the bank is simply providing financial services to HSUS, and does not take a position on the policies HSUS supports.

“Consumers—not the bank—show their support for these organizations by obtaining and using these cards. This is not a charitable donation,” Riess stated.

Animal Agriculture Alliance Communications Director Sarah Hubbart confirmed that, last week, Bank of America replied with a letter “reaffirming their commitment to supporting ag” but falling short of any decision to discontinue offering HSUS financial products. Hubbart explained that the Alliance will be pursuing the issue: “We’re looking forward to continuing that dialog… to help [Bank of America] understand our position and the threat that groups like HSUS pose to farmers and ranchers.”

Hubbart also encouraged people in agriculture to “politely” engage Bank of America on the issue, both by talking with local branches and through use of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“We’ve seen that that’s been a really effective way to help companies understand the threat of extreme groups like HSUS,” Hubbart pointed out.

A case in point: in 2010, South Dakota rancher Troy Hadrick launched an internet campaign against [yellow tail] wine producers to protest the company’s donation of $100,000 to HSUS as part of its “[tails] for tails” initiative. In the public relations scrum that ensued, Animal Agriculture Alliance acted as spokesperson for agricultural producers, and ultimately won a pledge from [yellow tail] to commit all future animal welfare donations to “organizations specifically devoted to hands-on care, such as rescue, sterilization, feeding, or disaster assistance,” according to a letter from the company.

The public relations flaps faced by Bank of America and [yellow tail] underline the dangers of corporate philanthropy when companies, either knowingly or naively, support politically controversial charities. Particularly for a service like banking, which is used by people across the political spectrum, choosing to support controversial groups of any political orientation can risk alienating a substantial portion of a company’s consumer base. Interestingly, Bank of America has chosen to partner with a range of groups, including American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Defenders of Wildlife, as well as HSUS, which have been called out by the agricultural community as promoting agendas and policies that threaten farmers and ranchers. What remains to be seen is whether public criticism, or even potential loss of agriculture industry clientele, will prompt a reconsideration of Bank of America’s charitable giving selections. —

Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent