Chick-fil-A announced that it had changed its donation strategy to focus on groups addressing education, homelessness, and hunger. The company will no longer make multiyear commitments, instead reassessing commitments annually.
The news comes in the aftermath of the chicken sandwich wars earlier this year.
The arrival of Popeyes’ chicken sandwich in September raised questions as to whether Chick-fil-A was still the king of the chicken sandwich. With Popeyes’ chicken sandwich returning to menus in early November, some people saw Chick-fil-A’s decision to end the controversial donations as a reaction to the buzz around its rival.
“@PopeyesChicken put the squeeze on you with that chicken sandwich, now you’re desperate for more market share,” tweeted New York Times columnist Charles Blow.
However, a Chick-fil-A representative told Business Insider that the company’s decision has nothing to do with Popeyes. And, taking a closer look at the documents that Chick-fil-A released on Monday, it is clear that the change has been in the works since long before Popeyes’ chicken sandwich debuted in August.
In 2017, Chick-fil-A donated $1.6 million to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and $150,000 to the Salvation Army. According to tax returns released on Monday, Chick-fil-A once again donated to $1.6 million to the FCA and $115,000 to the Salvation Army in 2018.
However, both organizations are missing from Chick-fil-A’s list of 2019 donations, which includes groups such as Morehouse College, Westside Future Fund Inc, and the Steve & Marjorie Harvey Foundation. In other words, while the Chick-fil-A Foundation’s official tax returns for 2019 will not be released for another year, the company seems to have stopped donating to the controversial groups before Popeyes’ chicken sandwich hit menus.
Chick-fil-A’s sales were booming even as backlash built
So, why did Chick-fil-A actually change its donations policy? There is likely a partially strategic decision — but it isn’t directly related to Popeyes’ chicken sandwich.
Chick-fil-A has been expanding across the US and beyond in recent years. It has become the third-largest chain in the US by sales, growing revenue by 16.7% in 2018 to reach nearly $10.5 billion, according to Nation’s Restaurant News.
Since 2012, Chick-fil-A has tried to separate itself from political and cultural battles waged by the right and left. However, as the company has gone from a regional Southern chain to an international brand, coverage of its anti-LGBTQ reputation has grown — despite pushback from the company.
People inside Chick-fil-A feel much of this coverage is not representative of Chick-fil-A’s values. While the company embraces the Christian faith of founder Truett Cathy — whose son, Dan Cathy, is now CEO — Rodney Bullard, the head of the Chick-fil-A Foundation, says that this faith does not require exclusion.
“The family has not, particularly Truett, did not shy away from his faith,” Bullard told Business Insider in May. “And his faith was a faith of opportunity and faith of inclusion, actually.”
Despite backlash, as of earlier this year, Bullard and others at Chick-fil-A did not think that these partnerships were morally wrong. The partnerships exclusively funded non-religious, youth programs and, according to Bullard, were “relevant and impactful in the community.”
“For us, that’s a much higher calling than any political or cultural war that’s being waged,” Bullard said.
In recent years, protests and media coverage of backlash against Chick-fil-A have frequently been sparked by new waves of expansion.
Chick-fil-A’s president and chief operating officer, Tim Tassopoulos, made the connection between expansion and the new approach to charitable donations explicit in an interview published on Monday.
“There’s no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are,” Tassopoulos told real-estate publication Bisnow. “There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message.”
The decision to end its donations to controversial groups was not a hasty choice in reaction to Popeyes’ chicken sandwich. Instead, it is a strategic move from a swiftly growing company, made based on what new potential customers consider acceptable and what they consider unacceptable.