Corporate funded nonprofit works at nexus of politics and entertainment


A corporate-funded nonprofit organization that operates out of a Washington, DC lobbying firm's offices and describes itself as working in the "nexus between the entertainment community and Washington" will be helping to host a "high-profile evening event" on Tuesday at the Democratic convention in Charlotte.Artists and Athletes logo

The Artists and Athletes Alliance is one of the cosponsors of  an "In the Know VIP session"  organized by The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress. The session will feature political gossip columnist Judy Kurtz.

Artists and Athletes specializes in bringing athletes and entertainers together with politicians, government executives and the media. Founded in 2008 by Steve Ross, a former lobbyist and GOP presidential campaign staffer, the Alliance provides access to the famous, the chance for politicians to rub elbows with stars, and opportunities for its sponsors to influence policy. 

It's a small but intriguing example of how corporate groups are using charities to exercise influence in the political sphere, one that looms more significant in an election cycle when nonprofit groups not required to disclose their donors are assuming bigger roles.

The group also participated in events at the Republican convention in Tampa, according to Ross.

The American Continental Group, a lobbying firm with a long list of business clients, describes the charity as an affiliate and lends it free office space. Another affiliate listed by the group, Pennsylvania Avenue Strategies, is also staffed by Ross, and provides event planning for clients. Through that group Ross provided consulting help to television networks for the 2008 debates; he also served as a consultant this year in the GOP primary debates.

Several companies and trade associations, including Southern Company and the Edison Electric Institute, provide funding for Artists and Athletes, which Ross says in an interview "operates like a start up" on a relatively small budget — some $262,000 in 2010, according to forms filed with Internal Revenue Service.  The Alliance's website looks like an exercise in cross-branding, with links to The Hill and a long list of charities supported by celebrities described as members of the Alliance.

The group, deliberately bipartisan — honorary co-chairs for its advisory board are Democrat Jason Alexander, of Seinfeld fame, and Republican Kelsey Grammer, formerly of the TV show Fraser — traffics largely in briefings on hot issues that interest celebrities, such as the Egyptian uprising, the Japanese earthquake, and the earthquake in Haiti. A May event on the 2012 elections was hosted by CNN's Wolf Blitzer. In educating celebrities, Ross says the group strives to show how they become active, "We say here are five ideas about how you can get involved."

Ross also does one-on-one arrangements for celebrities, acting as a combination of matchmaker and concierge to help fulfill their wishes — think meetings with government officials instead of green M&Ms. He arranged a private tour of the National Gallery of Art for actor Will Ferrell and his family, and helped set up  a visit to the Smithsonian butterfly exhibit for Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and his daughter, reported Business Week in 2011. Ross says he helped set up  appointments at the National Institutes of Health for comedian Bob Saget, whose sister died from scleroderma.

Artists and Athletes operates independently from American Continental Group, says Ross, but he added that sometimes he offers the lobbying firm's clients invitations to Los Angeles events they may be interested in. Calls to the firm were not returned by the time of this posting.

And at least one corporate sponsor of the group is clear that it has a vested interest in the group's acitviities. "Artists and Athletes provides a valuable forum to discuss energy and fiscal policy issues," said a spokesman for Southern Company, when contacted by Sunlight. "Our support for this organization represents one of our company's many efforts to address matters addressing our industry." He declined to say how much funding the company provides the group.

Sunlight's Political Party Time shows that Southern is hosting a "wheels up" party for Republican conventioneers in Tampa on Friday along with  several well-known conservative bankrollers, including Citizens United and the American Action Network.