DonorsTrust Pumped $142 Million into Right-Wing Causes in 2018

DonorsTrust, the preferred funding vehicle of the Koch network of right-wing donors, shelled out $142.4 million in 2018, over $31 million more than in 2017.

DonorsTrust's haul from wealthy donors nearly doubled in 2018, giving it $202.8 million in revenues in 2018 as compared to $113 million in 2017, according to IRS filings obtained the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD).

"In 2018, the number of people using DonorsTrust grew nearly twenty percent, and is up 62 percent over the past five years," wrote DonorsTrust President and CEO Lawson Bader.

Although the number of donors using DonorsTrust is up, the large increase in revenue was fueled primarily by a $123.2 million contribution by one person, the filing shows. Nonprofits are not required to disclose their donors to the public, so the identity of the contributor is unknown.

DonorsTrust now has net assets approaching a quarter of a billion dollars, and it has distributed more than $1.1 billion in grants over its 20 years of operation, according to a prospectus reviewed by CMD.

$20.3 Million in Support for Right-Wing State Infrastructure

DonorsTrust doled out over $20.3 million in grants in 2018 to build right-wing infrastructure in the states, CMD has calculated.

DonorsTrust gave $610,000 in 2018 to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a pay-to-play operation where state legislators and corporate lobbyists meet behind closed doors to adopt model legislation on issues that affect people's lives, such as the environment, energy policy, and labor issues. That amount is up from $422,000 in 2017.

The State Policy Network (SPN) also received an increase in funding from DonorsTrust to the tune of $7.5 million, comprising 45 percent of the national group's total revenue for 2018 and an increase of $1.7 million from the previous year.

In addition, DonorsTrust funneled $12.1 million to 46 of SPN's 64 affiliates, an increase of almost $5 million over 2017

SPN is a web of right-wing "think tanks," advocacy groups, and other registered nonprofits in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Canada, and the United Kingdom that provide academic legitimacy for right-wing policy ideas through reports, testimony at legislative hearings, and, increasingly, in the media.

Revenue for the State Policy Network and its main members now stands at more than $120 million.

In 2018, SPN unleashed a wave of front groups to attack public sector unions in an effort to convince their members to stop paying dues. Some of the SPN affiliates also continue to engage in climate misinformation, and SPN is leading an anti-disclosure campaign registered as two separate front groups, People United for Privacy (PUP) and People United for Privacy Foundation (PUPF).

DonorsTrust provided all of the Privacy Foundation’s $100,000  income in 2018, and the group reported spending only $30. Tony Woodlief, the President of both organizations, is also the Executive Vice President of SPN.


$18.5 Million for Right-Wing Legal Advocacy 

DonorsTrust provided $18.5 million in 2018 for Antonin Scalia School of Law and legal advocacy groups promoting right-wing judges and engaging in litigation.

As in 2017, the Judicial Education Project (JEP) led all grantees in 2018 in this area with close to $7 million received. JEP, the sister organization to the Judicial Crisis Network, got 93 percent of its total revenue in 2017 from DonorsTrust. (As of publication, JEP’s 2018 IRS filing is not publicly available.)

JCN vowed to spend $10 million to get Justice Brett Kavanaugh confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2018. Both JEP and JCN are tied to Leonard Leo, Trump's judicial advisor and operative responsible for placing a large number of right-wing judges on federal benches.

Leo is also executive vice president at the Federalist Society, which received close to $6 million in DonorsTrust cash in 2018, or a quarter of its revenue for the year. JCN and the Federalist Society share the same floor of an office building in D.C. Last month, Kavanaugh gave the keynote address at the Federalist Society's annual gala, while protestors played Christine Blasey Ford's speech detailing Kavanaugh's assault on her outside.


$12.3 Million for Media

DonorsTrust granted $12.3 million in 2018 to media outlets, many of which are right-wing supporters of Donald Trump.

The Lucy Burns Institute (LBI), publisher of Ballotpedia, topped all media recipients with $2.8 million from DonorsTrust in 2018. Although Ballotpedia claims to be "firmly committed to neutrality," it provides trainings to ALEC leadership in secret, and its president and CEO Leslie Graves is married to Republican operative Eric O'Keefe. Other right-wing supporters of LBI include the Bradley Foundation, the JM Foundation, and Searle Freedom Trust.

James O'Keefe and his "media" attack dog Project Veritas received $2.1 million from DonorsTrust in 2018, a small decrease in funds from 2017. In 2018, O'Keefe's crew went after tech companies, teachers' unions, and the "Deep State" federal employees, so-called "resisters" working against Trump. Project Veritas had a budget of $11 million in 2018, according to its annual review acquired by CMD.

DonorsTrust contributed another $1.75 million to the Real Clear Foundation (RCF). RCF funds RealClearInvestigations, a news aggregator that receives money from Charles Koch, the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and many other right-wing donors.

Think Freely Media (TFM), an associate member of SPN, received $1.4 million from DonorsTrust. TFM, created by right-wing operative John Tillman, works on "policy-focused, localized news content," according to its President Eric Tubbs. A Chicago Tribune investigation questioned the legality of TFM's operation in 2018, which it described as "a situation that encompasses not only ethical questions about a modern tool of Illinois political warfare but also the national discussion over what constitutes 'fake news.'"

And Brent Bozell's Media Research Center, publisher of NewsBusters, received $1.1 million from DonorsTrust in 2018. NewsBusters has flooded its site with articles attacking the impeachment investigation into Trump. The site also has a section entitled "Trump Coverage Studies" that attempts to refute mainstream media stories on Trump.

$6.3 Million for Climate Denial, Union Busting, and Constituency Building

DonorsTrust provided $3.8 million in funding to groups promoting climate misinformation including $2.9 million to the Heartland Institute, $634,200 to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, $296,000 to the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, and $31,450 to the Property and Environment Research Center.

The Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) are two of the most prominent "think tanks" spreading climate misinformation, both with strong ties to the Trump administration. Heartland produces a weekly e-newsletter, "Climate Change Weekly," which it claims has 4,700 subscribers. It also holds a yearly International Conference on Climate Change and, since Trump came into office, an America First Energy Conference.

CEI employs Myron Ebell, who the Financial Times called "one of American's most prominent climate-change skeptics," and was tapped by Trump to lead his EPA transition team.

DonorsTrust donated another $455,900 to union busting groups. The $341,100 to the Lincoln Network, $71,500 to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, $28,000 to the National Legal & Policy Center, and $15,300 to American for Fair Treatment is in addition to the millions provided to SPN groups to attack unions.

Lincoln Network, in partnership with SPN, created Edunity, "a technology platform to handle the end-to-end opt-out process from a public-sector union and provide leaving union members competitive benefits."

DonorsTrust provided another $1.8 million to right-wing groups targeting women and youth. DonorsTrust gave $625,000 to Independent Women's Forum (IWF), $110,000 to Network of Enlightened Women, $50,000 to The Policy Circle, and $35,000 to the Ladies of Liberty Alliance.

In 2018, the Koch-funded IWF, which uses its "independent" branding to attract women, was a vocal supporter of Bret Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination, even after Christine Blasey Ford's sexual assault allegations were made public.

DonorsTrust also gave $584,900 to Turning Point USA, $176,500 to Students for Liberty, $161,000 to Young Americans for Liberty Foundation, $21,800 to the Leadership Institute, $12,200 to Young Voices, and $8,500 to Young America's Foundation. All of these groups are working to build support for right-wing ideas among young people.

Since the election of Trump, Turning Point USA (TPUSA) has risen in prominence on campuses and has been one of the biggest supporters of Trump's agenda. TPUSA's "Campus Victory Project" seeks to place right-wing leaders in student government at American Universities so that it can push the "defunding of progressive organizations on campus, the implementation of 'free speech' policies eliminating barriers to hate speech, and the blocking of all campus 'boycott, divestment and sanctions' movements," The New Yorker reported.

Notably, DonorsTrust also contributed $225,000 to Fair Lines America Foundation (FLAF), a secretive group protecting Republican gerrymanders. In 2018, FLAF provided support to Citizens Protecting Michigan's Constitution, a group that filed suit to prevent an initiative on the November 2018 ballot that would "create an independent, citizen-led redistricting commission to draw fair voting maps."

$4.7 Million for Other Koch Influence Network Groups

In addition to funding for ALEC and SPN, DonorsTrust gave generously to other groups in the Koch influence network. The Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF) led all groups with $1.2 million in 2018. AFPF encompasses the Koch front groups Libre Initiative, Concerned Veterans for America, and Generation Opportunity, as well as its training operation, the Grassroots Leadership Academy.

Stand Together, the Koch's umbrella organization following Charles Koch's reorganization of the network earlier this year, received $100,000, and The Seminar Network Trust received $1.1 million.

The Koch-founded think tank the Mercatus Center received $890,590, and the Koch-founded Cato Institute received $283,050 from DonorsTrust in 2018. Institute for Humane Studies, a think tank closely tied to Charles Koch, received another $489,400.

DonorsTrust's full 2018 IRS 990 filing is available here.

Correction: This article originally stated that DonorsTrust gave $12.6 million for media, but that included an incorrect calculation for Prager University Foundation, which has been corrected.

David Armiak

David Armiak is research director with the Center for Media and Democracy. David joined CMD in 2015, has conducted extensive investigations on dark money, corporate corruption, and right-wing networks, and is responsible for filing and analyzing hundreds of public records requests every year. David has a strong research interest in social movements and political power, and has delivered many talks on the subject.