A group named Donors Trust has been funneling far more money than ExxonMobil ever did to climate denial groups, but because the source of the funds remains largely hidden, the public has been unable to pressure the donations to stop as they did with Exxon. A small portion of Donors Trust's funding was recently revealed by the Center for Public Integrity, yet even that small portion has significant ties to the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel interests.
Between 2008 and 2011, Donors Trust doled out over $300 million in grants to what it describes as “conservative and libertarian causes,” serving as “the dark money ATM of the conservative movement.” Donors Trust enables donors to give anonymously, noting on its website that if you “wish to keep your charitable giving private, especially gifts funding sensitive or controversial issues,” you can use it to direct your money.
One of the “controversial issues” that Donors Trust and its sister organization Donors Capital Fund have bankrolled is the campaign to cast doubt on the science of climate change and delay any government action to reduce emissions.* The following chart created by The Guardian based on data from Greenpeace shows that as ExxonMobil and the Koch Foundations have reduced traceable funding for these groups, donations from Donors Trust have surged:
Several of these organizations have sown confusion about the science demonstrating climate change. The Heartland Institute, which The Economist called the “world's most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change,” received over $14 million from Donors Trust from 2002 to 2011, making up over a quarter of Heartland's budget. in 2010. In 2012, Heartland launched a billboard campaign comparing those that accept climate science to The Unabomber, Charles Manson, and Fidel Castro. Several corporate donors distanced themselves from the organization, but Donors Trust made no comment. Heartland removed the billboard soon afterward but refused to apologize for the “experiment.”
Meanwhile, The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) received over $4 million from Donors Trust from 2002 to 2011, accounting for over 45 percent of CFACT's budget in 2010. The highest-paid member of CFACT's staff is Marc Morano, who runs a website that pushes misleading attacks on climate science. Morano defended Heartland's billboard and said that climate scientists “deserve to be publicly flogged.” Despite Morano's sordid background, CNN twice hosted him to “debate climate change and if it is really real” without disclosing that he has no scientific training and is paid by an industry-funded organization. CFACT lists the Forbes columns of Larry Bell, who calls global warming a “hoax,” as “CFACT research and commentary.” The organization is advised by several prominent climate misinformers, including Lord Christopher Monckton and Willie Soon.
The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) has revealed the sources of approximately $18.8 million of Donors Trust's funding from 2008 to 2011, culled from Internal Revenue Service filings. That leaves over $281 million in anonymous funds during that period, assuming that the organization gives out approximately as much as it takes in each year.
While the individuals and corporations funding Donors Trust remain largely hidden, we know that at least five separate foundations connected to Koch Industries have given over $3.8 million to Donors Trust in recent years. Koch Industries, owned by brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, is the largest privately owned company in the U.S. and controls several oil refineries and pipelines.
- The Knowledge And Progress Fund, the largest known funder of Donors Trust, gave $3.2 million to the organization from 2008 to 2010. Its board is composed of several Koch family members as well as Richard Fink, the Vice President of Koch Industries. The following map, created using Muckety.com, illustrates the connections between Donors Trust, The Knowledge And Progress Fund, and several Koch-backed charities:
- Philanthropy Roundtable is an organization that brings together like-minded donors and promotes “philanthropic freedom,” in part by opposing transparency efforts. One of its board members, Jeff Sandefer, is a former oilman. It is partially funded by The Charles G. Koch Foundation, and in 2011 it gave Charles G. Koch an award for “Philanthropic Leadership.” In 2010, oil tycoon Philip Anschutz received the award. Philanthropy Roundtable gave $250,000 to Donors Trust in 2010.
- Joe and Mary Moeller Foundation was co-founded by Joseph W. Moeller, who served as President and CEO of Koch Industries before becoming President and CEO of Georgia-Pacific Corp. after Koch acquired it. He is currently affiliated with both companies as well as the American Petroleum Institute. The Moeller Foundation gave $150,000 to Donors Trust in 2010, its largest grant other than a $200,000 grant to Donors Trust's Economic Freedom Fund.
- John William Pope Foundation is run by J. Arthur Pope, a director of the Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity and the CEO of Variety Wholesalers. In a 2011 profile of Pope, The New Yorker noted that his critics say that the millions of dollars he has funneled to Republican candidates have often “blur[red] the lines between tax-deductible philanthropy and corporate-funded partisan advocacy.” His foundations have reportedly had inordinate influence in North Carolina, where the Republican party recently voted to slash education budgets, just as Pope's network had advocated. The Pope Foundation has given $105,000 to Donors Trust since 2009.
- The Charles G. Koch Foundation, founded by the CEO of Koch Industries, has given $100,000 directly to Donors Trust.
CPI also noted that several other known Donors Trust funders have attended Koch fundraising parties.
Other funders of Donors Trust have also had direct connections to oil and gas corporations. The Anschutz Foundation was founded by Philip Anschutz, a billionaire who owns an oil and gas company as well as conservative publications including the Weekly Standard, the Washington Examiner, the Colorado Springs Gazette, and The Oklahoman. And the President of the Adolph Coors Foundation is a director of Energy Corporation of America.
The Columbia Journalism Review's Curtis Brainard wrote that if these millionaires and billionaires are seeking to conceal their connections to the fossil fuel industry, “It's the press's job to disappoint them.”
Yet an analysis by the Checks & Balances project found that the press often cites groups that oppose climate action without noting that they have ties to fossil fuel companies with a financial interest in maintaining the energy status quo. Most of the groups that the Checks & Balances Project looked at have received funding from Donors Trust -- the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, Heartland Institute, the Hudson Institute, and the Mercatus Center have each received over $1 million from the organization.
Sociologist Robert Brulle, who will soon release a paper on what he calls the “climate countermovement,” told Media Matters that the “purpose” of Donors Trust is to conceal the funding behind these organizations from the press, and by extension the public, adding, “this is certainly by design.”
Note: Media Matters has received funding from the Tides Foundation, which is a donor-advised fund like Donors Trust. However, Mother Jones, whose non-profit arm has also received funding from Tides, noted that “Donors Trust's strategic intent is far narrower and more coherent than Tides'. The groups funded by Donors Trust more or less pursue the same agenda--eliminate regulations, kneecap unions, shrink government, and transfer more power to the private sector,” while Tides has a more diverse list of grantees.
*Donors Capital Fund exists to process donations over $1 million, and the two organizations are referred to throughout the rest of the report as “Donors Trust.”