To some who shelled out big bucks to attend the annual Walter Kaitz Foundation Dinner on Sept. 25, the event felt more like a political rally than what it is — a fundraiser for cable's efforts to foster workplace diversity.
In part, that's because Kaitz president Art Torres, a former California state senator, has never given up his position as chairman of the California Democratic Party — a role he was supposed to "ease out of" when he took the mid-six figure paying Kaitz gig almost two years ago.
On the night of the gala, Torres was flanked by a gaggle of California politicians. California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, by the way, is in a tight re-election race.
Torres also announced a second wave of Kaitz grant winners that evening. The first round of grant-giving occurred last May. Back then, grant applicants — both winners and losers — were quite baffled about the process.
They were even more confused at the Kaitz gala, when the foundation announced that two of the five new grants were going to organizations based in the Golden State: New California Media and the Southern California Indian Center.
Neither of those groups is presently aligned with the cable industry. Most folks don't even know what they do, or what their potential tie-in to cable might be — except for the four people who sit on Kaitz's grant-giving subcommittee, whose identities are kept secret. And, of course, Torres himself knows.
Not surprisingly, some people at the dinner were asking where their $10,000 contributions were going. That's a valid question — and one that deserves a straight answer, now that Kaitz has shifted its focus. It no longer recruits and places fellows in cable companies, a strategy that bombed. Now it grants funds to organizations that are supposed to help cable companies diversify the workplace on their own.
"This loosey-goosey stuff drives people insane," said one executive from a cable organization that actually got a grant during the first round.
Since the confusion over the first round of grants in May, Kaitz has made some inroads to get its ship into shape. Still, there's room for improvement. One cable executive who sits on the Kaitz board last week said he wanted more accountability about overhead and governance.
The foundation has a board of directors comprised of 35 industry executives. Shamefully, some of those board members haven't been to a meeting in two years, sending proxies instead.
Better communication is needed. How hard could it be to send a simple letter to every single company that spent $10,000 to thank them, and to spell out where the money is going and what the organizations who got the dough are doing that might benefit them?
Better yet, every company that buys a table should be privy to all of Kaitz's financials.
Torres, the consummate politican, should know better. But it's not all his fault. The onus lies largely on a cable industry that has not harnessed his tremendous talent. Sure, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association sent him to testify at a Federal Communications Commission hearing on equal opportunity rules last June. He was splendid — no surprise there. But why did it take two years for that to happen?
Lobbying and other behind-the-scenes activities are part of the reason Torres was hired. His job is not just to run a fundraising dinner, but to act in cable's overall behalf.
Now, it's up to those who sit on the board to point Torres in the right direction and monitor his activities. Otherwise, cable is just playing lip service to diversity — and has no right to point fingers when the going gets messy.