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Can Chick-fil-A Shed Its Controversial Past?


Though Chick-fil-A stirred up controversy this week when the company announced it will no longer donate to two organizations that have been widely criticized for their positions on LGBTQ rights, the fast food chain is not ruling out donations to faith-based organizations in the future. But moving forward, the foundation said it would focus its giving initiatives on the areas of education, homelessness, and hunger.

“No organization will be excluded from future consideration—faith-based or non-faith-based,” Chick-fil-A President and COO Tim Tassopoulos said in a statement.

On Monday, thousands of followers of the fast food chain took to social media to express outrage over the Chick-fil-A Foundation‘s charitable donation announcement for 2020, which said they would no longer donate to the Salvation Army and Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).

“We made multiyear commitments to both organizations, and we fulfilled those obligations in 2018,” said a Chick-fil-A statement.

In 2018,  Chick-fil-A’s charitable contributions included $1.65 million to the Missouri-based FCA, to provide underserved youth with summer sports camps, and $115,000 to the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree Program, which, through donations, provides new clothing and toys for children during the holidays.

For 2020, the foundation committed $9 million to Junior Achievement USA, an organization that offers education programs for students in kindergarten through 12th grade; Covenant House, which provides housing and support services to young people in need; and local community food banks, donating $25,000 with each new Chick-fil-A opening.

Twitter blew up after the announcement, with most of the anger coming from people who supported the company through earlier controversies. Posts tagged #ChickFilA, rolled in from former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee, church leaders, (now possibly former) fans of the chain’s famous chicken sandwich, LGBTQ activists, analysts, celebrities, and more.

“Dear #ChickFilA, what a stupid move. Total Nonsense,” tweeted a pastor from Tennessee, with a video that had pulled in 138,400 views and more than 3,100 likes by Tuesday evening. “What are you going to do next, open up on Sunday?,” he continued. “You have a loyal base of customers because of family values and high standards of morality.”

Others were in favor of the announcement, with activist Ryan Knight tweeting that Chick-fil-A “took the hate out of its chicken sandwich.”

Actress, screenwriter, and producer Nia Vardalos wrote: “I’ve never eaten at Chick-fil-A because they’d donated to anti-gay groups. Their recent announcement that they will cease anti-hate donations is a great change but I am wary of blithely waltzing in and ordering now.”

Brands that take a stand on controversial issues need to understand what they’re getting into before they do it.

“What Chick-fil-A realized is they’ve created a polarized position where the folks who support their view are happy and those who don’t are not,” said Mark A. Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School and the former CEO of Sears Canada. “They’re walking the cat back to a neutral position, they should have been in a neutral position from the get-go.”

The foundation’s new focus on donating to causes that are not controversial is a step in the right direction, said Tim Calkins, professor of marketing strategy at Northwestern University.

“Chick-fil-A is trying to back away from these very polarizing views and with the foundation, focus on causes that are more broadly appealing,” Calkins said. “It’s hard to offend anyone with a focus on education.”

The professor compared the fast food chain’s recent controversy to Dick’s Sporting Goods.

“Both brands got caught in very controversial issues with very engaged people on both sides,” Calkins said. “Chick-fil-A is trying to back away from it, but Dick’s Sporting Goods is firmly in the middle of the controversy and as a result some people have stopped shopping there.”

In an interview with Fortune in October, Dick’s CEO Ed Stack stood by his decision to stop selling assault-style rifles from stores and raise the age to buy any gun to 21, even after losing $300 million in sales to Cabela’s, Bass Pro, and local gun dealers.

“The ones that are mad at us, we’ve lost them,” Stack said.

Cohen’s advice to retailers is to stay out of politics and cultural debates.

“Remember the height of the debate over transgender bathrooms? Target took a position in favor of them and faced a million-plus petitioners who objected to their view,” Cohen recalled. “At the same time, Walmart remained silent. The end of the day, the right answer is to remain silent.”

That is, if you don’t want to face backlash.

As for Chick-fil-A’s future, Calkins speculated that the outrage over the new charity strategy will likely be short-term.

“Chick-fil-A isn’t saying that it’s now going to be putting floats into the Gay Pride Parade, they’re just saying we’re directing our money toward causes like education that everyone can support,” he said. “The world is very complicated and when you change your approach to social issues you want to move gradually.”

Meanwhile, The Salvation Army, says they’ve adopted a more inclusive approach and are committed to serving the LGBTQ community. They added that they’re saddened by Chick-fil-A’s decision to divert funding.

“We believe we are the largest provider of poverty relief to the LGBTQ+ population,” said The Salvation Army. “When misinformation is perpetuated without fact, our ability to serve those in need, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, religion or any other factor, is at risk.”

In response to the Chick-fil-A news, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) said it’s not the first time Chick-fil-A has claimed it’s ending ties to anti-gay organizations.

“Remember that similar press statements were previously proven to be empty,” said Drew Anderson, director of campaigns and rapid response for GLAAD, adding the latest news should be treated with “cautious optimism.”

“In addition to refraining from financially supporting anti-LGBTQ organizations, Chick-fil-A still lacks policies to ensure safe workplaces for LGBTQ employees and should unequivocally speak out against the anti-LGBTQ reputation that their brand represents,” said Anderson.

Calkins said he finds it interesting that it took the fast food chain this long to take a more neutral position.

“It’s hard enough to win a customer today and you don’t want to lose them because of your views on a controversial social issue that isn’t directly related to your brand,” he said. “Chick-fil-A is saying, ‘we want to stick to making a wonderful chicken sandwich and not get directly involved.’”

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