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Meet Donors Trust: The Little-Known Group That Lets the Wealthy Secretively Fund Right-Wing Causes

Since 1999, the nonprofit charity Donors Trust has handed out nearly $400 million in private donations to more than 1,000 right-wing and libertarian groups.

Editor's note: The following is a transcript of a Democracy Now! segment on Donors Trust, a little known group funding the Right's agenda. 

When it comes to the wealthy funders of right-wing causes, the big names are well known: billionaires like the industrialist Koch Brothers and the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, super PACs like Americans for Prosperity and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. Now, through them, hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into right-wing causes and candidates. But now it turns out this web of dark-money donations is even more secretive than we previously thought. That’s because the operations of a largely unknown group have now come to light. They’re called Donors Trust, a nonprofit charity based in Virginia.

Since 1999, Donors Trust has handed out nearly $400 million in private donations to more than 1,000 right-wing and libertarian groups. The fact Donors Trust has been able to quietly do so appears to explain why it exists: Wealthy donors can back the right-wing causes they want without attracting public scrutiny. Donors Trust is classified as a "donor-advised" fund under U.S. tax law, meaning its funders don’t have direct say in where their money goes. That in turn allows them to remain largely anonymous.

AMY GOODMAN: But the most detailed accounting to date shows Donors Trust funds a wish list of right-wing causes, prompting Mother Jones magazine to label it, quote, "the dark-money ATM of the right." Donors Trust recipients include the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a mechanism for corporate interests to help write state laws; the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a media outlet that unabashedly promotes right-wing causes; and the State Policy Network, a number of right-wing think tanks that push so-called "free-market" policies.

But the major focus of Donors Trust appears to be funding the denial of global warming. More than a third of Donors Trust donations—at least $146 million—has gone to think tanks and other groups that challenge the science of climate change. Later in the broadcast, we’ll take a closer look at that funding of climate change denial, but first we turn to an overview of Donors Trust and look at why it’s been able to evade public scrutiny until now.

Joining us from Washington, D.C., is John Dunbar, politics editor at the Center for Public Integrity, worked on the group’s months-long investigation into Donor’s Trust. We did ask Donors Trust to join us, but they declined our request.

John Dunbar, lay out just what Donors Trust is.

JOHN DUNBAR: Well, they’re essentially a pass through. What they do is, is they act as a kind of a middleman between what are very large, well-known private foundations created by—mostly by corporate executives, like the Kochs, for example, and they direct the money of those contributions to a very large network of right-leaning, free-market think tanks across the country, including those that you’ve named. By doing—by running it through the middleman, it essentially obscures the identity of the original donors, of the folks who have provided the funds themselves. And the organization itself actually makes that clear on its own website, essentially saying people who give money to the organization can avoid being identified or being connected with potentially controversial issues.

AARON MATÉ: And John Dunbar, so the figure is $400 million since 1999. Why is it that all this is just coming to light now?

JOHN DUNBAR: Well, we kind of stumbled onto it, to be honest with you. We’ve been, at the Center for Public Integrity—that’s if you’d like to read our full  report on it—we were looking at activities at the state level, and we were noticing a certain continuity. There was a certain sameness to what was going on in various states on these issues. And we have been looking at the American Legislative Exchange Council for quite some time, and we were looking for how these organizations were funded. And this Donors Trust organization kept popping up, and it seemed to be such an amorphously named organization. We couldn’t really figure out where it was. So we got to wondering, "Well, who’s funding Donors Trust?" And then we backed it up a step, and then we started looking at some of the more better-known right-wing, free-market foundations, particularly those run by the Koch brothers—the Searle Freedom Trust, for example, is another one; the Bradley Foundation—these are all very well-known right-leaning foundations—and found that an enormous amount of the funds that came into Donors Trust came from those—from those organizations.

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