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Charity Group Brings Dollars, and Controversy

Activists targeted group because it lets customers support Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.

Shopping for a flat screen TV typically isn't that controversial. Arguments may ensue over the best size, brand or price, but those quarrels are usually short-lived.

The Charity Give Back Group, or CGBG, is changing that.

CGBG, formerly known as the Christian Values Network, or CVN, is an online hub that allows consumers to shop for anything from golf shoes to airline tickets. Hundreds of stores–Best Buy, Sears, Target, Home Depot–are represented on the site. But what makes CGBG different from, say, Amazon.com, is that shopping through the network enables customers to make charitable contributions.

If, for example, a shopper buys a $3,000 flat screen TV from Best Buy, the profit is split between CGBG and a charity of the customer's choosing, though the percentage depends on the company behind the product and the specific purchase. Kevin McCullough, an adviser to the CGBG's site, says customers have nearly 200,000 charities to choose from.

But gay activists have begun petitioning companies to cut ties to CGBG because it allows customers to support organizations such as Family Research Council and Focus on the Family–Christian groups that oppose gay marriage.

Change.org, a website that provides tools for activists looking to start petitions, is at the center of the debate. The site is host to several petitions calling on major companies such as Target to sever ties with the network.

Ben Crowther, a student at Western Washington University, collected more than 20,000 signatures on a petition to Apple, propelling the company to remove iTunes from the CGBG's network, according to Change.org.

"From the beginning, I knew that once this issue was brought to Apple's attention, they would not want to be a part of CVN because it funds anti-gay hate groups," said Crowther. "Apple is a fair-minded business."

According to Change.org, a Seattle resident's petition convinced Microsoft last month to stop doing business with the website. Macy's and Wells Fargo have followed suit.

Not all companies, however, detached themselves from the network to back away from controversy or because they wish to take a stand.

According to Change.org, Delta Air Lines is one of many companies that recently decided to drop out of the network. When asked for the reason behind its decision, however, Chris E. Kelly, a spokesman for Delta, explained that earlier this year, the company overhauled its affiliate program that allows external organizations to sell tickets through their websites.

Delta eliminated low performers, keeping only "active, high-performing partners." In other words, according to Delta, the move to stop working with CGBG was a business decision. Kelly noted Delta had not sold a ticket through the network in more than 18 months.

Others, however, like Tom Minnery, senior vice president for Focus on the Family, say that though the amount of money they raise through the website is minimal, it's the show of support for their cause that counts.

"It's so obvious that the nuclear family should be headed by a man and a woman," said Minnery. "We believe that's not hateful but an opinion shared by the vast number of people in the country."

Minnery also says he believes most of the companies involved in the controversy aren't really aware of the facts but are "being used as pawns in a political tussle."

McCullough said it's important that companies and customers are well-informed about the way the site works. CGBG, he says, does not promote religious content on the site, though 35 percent of all donations go to faith-based organizations.

McCullough also says one of the reasons behind the site's name change was that they wanted to make it clear they were interested in funding organizations focused on education, not just religious groups.

"We have a desire to facilitate charitable work across the board," said McCullough. "We believe in doing good in society."

McCullough says those working through Change.org "materially put at risk the work of those charities, not to mention the livelihood of our company."

But McCullough, who has begun reaching out to some of the companies that have severed ties, says CGBG is prepared to get them back.

"We feel that the retailers made their decision primarily based on a one-sided story," said McCullough. "We're pushing back with the facts now."

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