Opinion: Columnists

Ron Arnold: The Left's simmering campaign against Donors Trust boils over

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Two weeks ago, Greenpeace published a hit piece headlined "Donors Trust: Laundering Climate Denial Funding. The shadow operation that has laundered $146 million in climate-denial funding." A few days later, the New York-based media producer Democracy Now! broadcast a story called "The ATM for Climate Denial: Secretive Donors Trust Funds Vast Network of Global Warming Skeptics."

That's just the latest. The scrutiny began with a PBS "Frontline" broadcast last October, followed by inquires by the Nation (November), the Center for Public Integrity (December) and Mother Jones (January), all resulting in February articles. The March installment has not yet appeared. You get the picture.

What did Donors Trust do wrong? Nothing. That is, nothing beyond disagreeing with climate jihadists -- presuming that's the proper obverse pejorative of the "climate deniers" coinage. I spoke with the organization's president and CEO, Whitney Ball, who told me that all the "shadow" and "secrecy" and "black box" and "dark money" accusations could apply to every 501(c)(3) public charity. By Internal Revenue Code rules, the identities of their donors are not available for public inspection. But the general reader doesn't know that, so it sounds nefarious. Just ask Greenpeace or any of those other groups for their individual donor lists. You won't get them.

Donors Trust, a donor-advised fund, was established to promote liberty and help like-minded donors preserve their charitable intent, according to Ball. When donors make a gift to a donor-advised fund, she explained, they surrender all legal control over the gift, but they may recommend recipients. In return, donors receive an immediate tax deduction and are guaranteed anonymity. The anonymity protects donors from recipients eager for more grants. Being a secret donor is a good way to stay off junk mail lists and not have to worry about fundraising phone calls during dinner time.

Donors Trust also has its own rules. If a donor requests a liberty-oriented recipient with no more than 25 percent of their revenue from government sources, Donors Trust generally will approve, but it is not legally obliged to do so.

Greenpeace engages in the same practices it labels as "laundering." It takes grant money from donors such as the Packard Foundation ($1.5 million, total from all foundations $18.1 million) and then grants it to other nonprofits. In 2011, for example, Greenpeace gave $4 million to U.S. groups and $5.6 million to European groups, according to their IRS Form 990.

The attacks against Donors Trust try to make donor-advised funds sound alien, unusual and dangerous. However, they are so common that Fidelity, Vanguard and Schwab each run one. The IRS Form 990 even devotes a page to reporting on DAFs and asks every nonprofit if they maintain one. (It's in Schedule D, Part 1, for those curious.) The left-wing Tides Foundation, for example, houses hundreds of them. It has also given more than $1 billion to leftist causes, according to its website.

One of the most egregious insults to come out of this insult-laden barrage came from Guardian correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg on the Democracy Now! broadcast. In response to Ball's question "How is it that the Tides Foundation, which funds environmental causes and does not publish donor lists, is never characterized in the same way by reporters?" Goldenberg replied that "there's something really different here," that Donors Trust grantees "spread information that is factually incorrect, that is untrue. ... You can't draw this equivalence here." The organizations supported by Donors Trust, she said, "were funded for the express purpose of spreading disinformation."

I thought it was the other way around, based on the Tides output I've seen.

In any event, a massive database of IRS Form 990s shows the total foundation support for environmental causes to date consists of 331,256 grants totaling $19.3 billion, with a "b." That's more than a hundred times bigger than Donors Trust.

Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

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