This article is an excerpt of a longer discussion about right-wing funding, part of our Inform Your Giving series. Access the transcript of that discussion here.
Ethan Fauré: Right-wing ideologues use money to consolidate and expand their wealth and power. On the individual level, wealthy people donate to candidates for political office or support campaigns that protect their interests. In one instance, a billionaire hedge fund donor spent tens of millions of dollars to successfully defeat a 2020 referendum that would have created a more progressive taxation system in Illinois.
The most effective donors invest years or decades of sustained support for institutions to shape policy. The Heritage Foundation, notorious for its influence on the Reagan administration, recently announced it received its largest gift ever: $25 million over five years from a family that had supported Heritage for 50 years. Heritage, alongside well-resourced institutions like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Policy Alliance, leads The Promise to America’s Children, a campaign that has been instrumental in increasing legislative attacks on LGBTQ people in recent years. (This year alone, right-wing lawmakers have introduced over 350 anti-trans bills in 49 states.)
Donor Advised Funds (DAFs) are one of the most significant ways right-wing donors funnel resources. Many of the country’s largest financial institutions are increasingly adopting and encouraging the use of DAFs in philanthropy, facilitating the support of right-wing institutions like Heritage.
So, what can be done? PRA is a part of the Unmasking Fidelity Coalition, which is led by grassroots organizers in Boston to challenge Fidelity Charitable’s role in moving millions of dollars via its DAFs to antidemocratic organizations like the Heritage Foundation. The Amalgamated Foundation’s “Hate is Not Charitable” campaign does similar work to stop the flow of resources to antidemocratic organizations.
Jasmine Banks: Charles Koch’s theory of change—what he calls his structure of social change—involves eroding public interest and public funding. One way he does this is by investing in underfunded universities to drive research and curriculum to promote free market privatization.
Koch also supports think tanks that translate free market ideals into policy recommendations, funds activist organizations to build public support for free market policies, and invests in federal and state election campaigns to reduce government regulation and protect private ownership. He layers his funding through every part of society: in the cultural production in the institutions, in the judiciary and more.
Koch leaves his grantees alone, funding them for long periods and letting grantees do the idea work. Left-leaning philanthropy does a really good job of funding what they don’t want to have happen whereas Koch and his allies fund the world they want to live in, and they know fascists will allow them to maintain private control over our institutions.
The Left needs to fund projects that build greater democratic institutions, such as public higher education. Democracy can be reclaimed for all of us, where resources are distributed instead of concentrated in the hands of a few corporate leaders. Funders need to talk to those of us who have been close to the problem. Funders also need to give us money and trust that we can organize, that we are self-determined and we have the right to defend ourselves.
The free market and invisible hand have become God and religion. It takes more than just policy or advocacy to break people out of those echo chambers. We also have to counter right-wing narratives with different narrative frames, and organize people around a story. This is how to build grassroots political will and power. In the long term, having conversations with folks and doing deep, intentional listening helps with understanding people’s underlying anxieties. When you say, “Well, what are you afraid of? What do you think is going to happen to you?” That’s where populist fear comes out. Spending deep time in relational organizing is super important. We don’t choose one tactic; we have a whole toolbox and we make sure that we’re thoughtful about getting to the “why” behind what concerns folks.
I talk to young people regularly and have to convince them that governance can be good and worthwhile. If young people don’t believe that good governance is possible in this country, they will go to places that provide them safety, security and care, because so many are afraid of violence in their communities or when they can’t feed their families. A lot of well-funded ideologies have good stories of how you stay safe. Fear is an activating emotion. It leads us to do things that make some of the worst possible worlds. But messages that don’t activate our fight-or-flight reflex, and show nuance, complexity, and belonging instead, give a different kind of physiological experience that holds us longer there. When we’re activating people based on a shared threat versus on a shared project that we can build together, you get different outcomes. Funding on the Left often relies on fear-based messaging: “things are so bad and if you don’t take action now, if you don’t donate right now”— panic, panic, panic! When you couple that with people who have already lived through genocide and other horrors, that creates a toxic stew.
Claire Provost: Christian Right money crosses borders and supports intersecting strategies that threaten democracies around the world, but these funding flows are under-scrutinized. I led a project that in 2020 revealed that 28 U.S. Christian Right groups spent $280 million from 2007 [to] 2018 globally in opposition to women’s and LGBT rights. According to that data, which came from an analysis of 990 financial filings in the U.S., these organizations spent more money in Europe (about $90 million) than anywhere else outside the U.S., followed by Africa (about $50 million).
U.S. Christian Right groups funded lawfare attacks against women’s and LGBT rights in the European Court of Human Rights and national courts, hosted trainings for African politicians on how to lobby against sex education and LGBT rights, promoted COVID conspiracy theories and other misinformation about health and rights across Latin America, and sought to secretly influence elections and referenda, including the 2019 European elections, in favor of the Far Right. Those findings were cited hundreds of times across global media, and dozens of European politicians publicly condemned what was found, calling for further inquiries. Exposing these money flows can have a major impact.
That said, this funding is often combined with other funding sources. While the U.S. Christian Right spends more of its international money in Europe than any other region, Europe also receives significant Russian and domestic funding through public and private funds. My recent story showed aid for anti-LGBT Christian conservative groups in Ghana came largely from European donors in Germany and the U.K.
Huge challenges exist in tracking and understanding right-wing and anti-democratic funding streams. The ecosystem of Christian Right and anti-democratic actors is not homogeneous. Some Christian Right organizations are registered as church organizations and have different levels of disclosure. Even nonprofits can vary in the detail of their financial filings. Piecing together chains of funding, where one organization funds another, which funds another, which funds another can be extremely hard. We only know the tip of the iceberg.
These different funding flows also involve foundation funding, donor advised funds, crowdfunding appeals, advertisements, partnerships with Amazon, and publishing streams, including Christian Right movie production houses. There’s public funding, aid funding, and corporate social responsibility funding. Focusing on some of these areas can be more strategic.
For example, in 2019, I uncovered that popular Italian prosecco and cheese companies had given money to the World Congress of Families, leading to calls to boycott those companies.
Similarly, the Right uses boycotts, like those against Disney and LGBT characters, to send a message and have influence by organizing their supporters. Boycotts also mobilize communities. For progressive causes, boycotts might not end a funding stream, but they build consciousness of how we might be unintentionally funding attacks on our own rights.
Boycotts mobilize people who are not actively involved in progressive struggles, but who don’t want to be inadvertently funding the Right and attacks on human rights.
Conservative funders fight transparency, look for ways to avoid regulations, and undermine rights—sometimes using illegal means. On the one hand, the fight doesn’t seem fair. On the other hand, progressive funders would not want to adopt some of these tactics because they’re antidemocratic.
We need more of this work. We need more updated, regular, and detailed data collection and analysis of right-wing funding and its impacts. PRA is such an important part of this ecosystem not just in terms of the research, but also the generosity of people who answer questions and help when you come up against methodologically complex issues.
Dr. Abbas Barzegar: Since 9/11, anti-Muslim groups have moved into mainstream civil society, think tanks, public discourse, universities, and the Trump administration. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) mapped this ecosystem and found a network of institutions and philanthropy coalesced around antidemocratic ideals. It is easy to make the case that philanthropic institutions themselves are responsible, but a closer look reveals a usurpation and exploitation of the philanthropic system.
DAFs have been used to hoard wealth and take advantage of tax loopholes. By some estimates, over $300 billion is locked up in DAFs around the country. It is not simply the case that DAFs are a tool of the Right, however, and it is far too simple to suggest that DAFs themselves are the problem. Wealthy people use DAFs because they’re easy to use. Most donors disclose their identities and are proud of who and what they’re funding. When a donor is confronted with a grantee recommendation that goes against their values, they often move their money to another foundation. Reforming DAFs themselves is not the largest priority.
The problem with asking philanthropy and foundations to move their policies and procedures to conform to an anti-hate, progressive agenda is that they need consistent policies, definitions, and practices. In the U.S., hate itself is not necessarily illegal. Approaching institutional philanthropy is more strategic when meeting them where they are at, such as saying, “How do we create systems and policies for you to better align with your stated values? You’re granting money to socially progressive causes, but your DAF portfolios are funding something else.” This mismatch is something to expose.
Another challenge is understanding institutional philanthropy’s constraints. I have the pleasure of working with one of the largest national DAF providers in the country. Their staff, board, and executives share pro-democracy values, but they operate in an institutional capacity that doesn’t allow them to move, to put their shared values into practice operationally. What they ask of us are clear definitions, guidelines, and practices.
The majority of our foundation dollars go towards high publicity, high media profile types of activity. We need to consider funding frontline organizing for power-building movements and networks as infrastructure work. The trajectory of that work is also forward-facing and media-facing. The money does not exist to combat technocratic, bureaucratic infrastructure like ALEC because it doesn’t fit a narrative change strategy. Most of our funders and institutions are obsessed with narrative change, not actually investing in the kind of technocratic, bureaucratic infrastructure that’s needed to challenge or even rival some of these institutions. The Koch brothers, as Jasmine mentioned, operate on a multigenerational timeline, dealing with a completely different calculus than trying to stay up on the 48-hour news cycle. On every level, whether trying to get folks to divest or to reexamine their investment and grantmaking policies, we also need quiet technocratic solutions to counter right-wing infrastructure in the long term.