Tag Archives: disclosure

The hidden world of nonprofit advocacy

Okay, so today I Tweeted this:

It’s something I’ve been thinking for a long time. There are more and more “nonprofit organizations” whose official mission is “educational” or some such, but whose actual purpose is political advocacy, including activity that ought to be classified as lobbying but it’s not.

This is one reason I’m less exercised than some about the proposed cap on itemized deductions: a lot of “charitable contributions” are being spent politically. Many wealthy people set up their own nonprofit foundations for the purpose of spreading their political beliefs. The Koch Empire is the prime example of this, but there are lots of others. In Vermont, their number includes the Vermont Workers’ Center, VPIRG, Campaign for Vermont, Energize Vermont, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, the Ethan Allen Institute, and the late unlamented Vermonters First.

That’s a heavy-hitting list of groups trying to influence our politics, and they range from far left to far right. Nobody’s got a patent on this. Although I will say that the quantity of money on the right is much greater than on the lieft. Although although I will say that Vermont is an exception to this rule; our nonprofits lean leftward.

Some of these groups do report direct lobbying activities, but because they are nonprofits, they are not legally obligated to report the source of their revenue. Some voluntarily report to some extent, but as far as I know, none of them provide full donor disclosure. Which would include name, town and state of residence, and amount of donation. (If any group does so, please let me know and I will amend this post.)

I say “Ive been thinking about this for a long time,” so what made me write about it today? Actually, the inspiration was a mistake I made on Twitter, in replying to a Tweet from the corporate-funded folks at “Stop the Vermont Beverage Tax.”

Which brought a quick response from, well, a ready chorus of right-wingers, but let’s stick with the Ethan Allen Institute, Tweeting as @EAIVT:

They’re right. At least they’re partly right. “SPN” is the State Policy Network, which is part of the Koch nonprofit empire. I didn’t lie, though; I mistakenly believed that EAI is Koch-funded. I picked this up from the Center for Media and Democracy’s “Sourcewatch,” which describes SPN thusly:

The State Policy Network (SPN) has franchised, funded, and fostered a growing number of “mini Heritage Foundations” at the state level since the early 1990s.[1] SPN is a web of right-wing “think tanks” in every state across the country. It is an $83 million right-wing empire as of the 2011 funding documents from SPN itself and each of its state “think tank” members.

Sourcewatch lists the Ethan Allen Institute as the SPN’s Vermont affiliate. There’s where I made my leap of faith. I’ll take EAI’s word for it that they don’t get money from SPN or the Kochs; too bad for them, since a lot of their fellow SPNers are ridin’ that gravy train.

Still, for EAI to pay for the privilege of SPN affilliation… it’s not correct to call them “Koch-funded,” but they’re definitely “Koch-friendly.”

I will freely admit that I sometimes shoot from the hip, as I did in this case. I try to own up when I’m wrong; this isn’t the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But I could have avoided my mistake if we had better disclosure laws; I could have gone to the source instead of poking around for indirect scraps of information.

But the real point isn’t a matter of my convenience. It’s openness and transparency in our politics.

Organized political parties (and the Democrats, haha) will tell you that campaign finance laws are stacked against them. It’s better in a number of ways for donors to go through their own organizations than through parties: there are effectlvely no limits and few disclosure requirements, and they retain control over how their money is spent. That’s why the Kochs and Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess and all those people don’t give much money to the Republican Party; they funnel their wealth through their own organizations. And when those groups are nonprofits, We, the Taxpayers, are underwriting their political activities. Nice work if you can get it.

The point is, in this modern world of political nonprofits, we need better disclosure rules. We need to know who’s spending money for what political purpose, whether they’re going through the Ethan Allen Institute or the Vermont Workers’ Center.

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