In 1997, NCRP published a seminal report by researcher Sally Covington, “Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations.” As Covington warned back then: “For more than three decades, conservative strategists have mounted an extraordinary effort to reshape politics and public policy priorities at the national, state and local level. Although this effort has often been described as a ‘war of ideas,’ it has involved far more than scholarly debate within the halls of academe. Indeed, waging the war of ideas has required the development of a vast and interconnected institutional apparatus.”
In the intervening years, that apparatus and the influence of conservative funders has grown immensely more powerful, as recently documented in Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Key to that influence is the synergy between right-wing funders and a centrally coordinated network of state-based institutions that, behind the front of public charities, carry out highly politicized agendas that not only push up against the line of legality but boldly leap right over it.
A case in point is now playing out in the Pacific Northwest. The Freedom Foundation, a member of the Koch-supported State Policy Network, is a 501(c)(3) public charity that has undertaken a highly aggressive campaign attacking public employee unions as part of a larger plan to “defund the left” and undermine financial backing for Democratic candidates. In their own words, “The Freedom Foundation has a proven plan for bankrupting and defeating government unions through education, litigation, legislation and community activation.”
It’s not surprising that an ideologically driven organization like Freedom Foundation is playing this kind of vanguard role. More surprising is that alongside some much better known national conservative foundations, one of its largest contributors is a local, Vancouver, Washington, foundation not generally known as a radical right-wing stalwart: the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust.
A large private foundation that’s generally well-regarded as a supporter of traditional educational, religious, health and arts-focused nonprofits, Murdock has now raised eyebrows by supporting an array of far-right organizations, including the virulently anti-gay Alliance Defending Freedom (which sows hate not just here but internationally); the Discovery Institute (best known for its promotion of anti-evolution pseudo-science); and Freedom Foundation. Its 2015 grant of $240,000 to Freedom Foundation is the single largest grant to Freedom Foundation recorded in Foundation Center’s database. (Freedom Foundation does not have to reveal its donors publicly, but foundations who make grants to it report those grants on their own filings with the IRS.)
The disconnect between Murdock’s grantmaking and its reputation and general standing in the community – and with prevailing values in the Northwest communities where Murdock funds – is underscored in an unusual petition to Murdock’s CEO and trustees being circulated by the Northwest Accountability Project, which formed specifically to counter Freedom Foundation’s campaign.
The Accountability Project has also filed a formal complaint with Oregon’s attorney general and another with the IRS, based on explicit statements by Freedom Foundation staff that their work is intended to undermine Democratic candidates by draining union coffers. As one of them says on video, “For every dollar [unions] spend defending their idea is every dollar they don’t have to spend against our good candidates.”
The IRS has taken virtually all constraints off of political activity by 501(c)(4) organizations, as evidenced by its stunning decision to certify that status for Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS group. But few 501(c)(3)s are so brazen in flouting the rules as the Freedom Foundation staff have been, particularly when they’re funded by mainstream funders like Murdock.
While NCRP strongly encourages nonprofits and foundations to support civic engagement and advocacy to the full extent they are able to under IRS regulations, this kind of aggressively partisan activity is way over the line, not only inviting scrutiny from regulators but potentially chilling legitimate nonprofit and foundation activities.
Dan Petegorsky is Senior Fellow at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), leading a civic engagement initiative. Follow @NCRP on Twitter.