How to Really Screw Up Donor Relations: Heritage Donor Files Inadvertently Revealed

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By Ser Amantio di Nicolao (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

September 9, 2015; Gawker

It is likely that most of us who fundraise for any length of time have found ourselves in the position of being face to face with a potentially large donor who says something that is anathema to our work. What to do? Challenge it? Act like you didn’t hear it? Or finesse the situation by implying that you basically agree but can’t say so?

The Heritage Foundation has a healthy fundraising program, which raised $135 million between 2008 and 2009. That fundraising program is partially tracked through “call reports,” which document the interactions between the institution and its donors, and those reports, some of which have been acquired by Gawker reveal the conservative think tank’s balancing act between its positioning on issues and the positioning of a portion of its far-right donors.

Writing for Gawker, J.K. Trotter reveals that a file appeared on an Amazon server late last month that revealed through call reports some awkward realities about the Heritage Foundation’s relationships with some of those donors. Trotter says that the file in question seems to have been uploaded by a Heritage staffer, instead of being the product of the recent well-publicized hack of the institution. Specifically, Gawker says the file appears to have been mistakenly uploaded by an assistant director of the major gifts team, Steve DeBuhr, appearing on the Amazon server where Heritage policy papers and membership forms are posted.

The Heritage Foundation is, of course, a well-known and influential conservative think tank, and to maintain its own credibility, it must stay somewhere in the realm of supportable fact—but not so its donors. In the document are “call reports” written by staffers that serve as a revealing window into how “the foundation navigated the flood of conservative conspiracy-mongering that followed Obama’s election in 2008, and how its staffers discussed the increasingly bizarre ideologies of its donor class with puzzlement and occasional derision.”

One such report details conversations with donor Robert W. Ellis, who gave $250,000 in 40 gifts to the foundation between 1994 and 2008. According to this file, Jeffrey Trimbath met with Ellis seven times between 2008 and 2009. An excerpt reads:

At lunch, Bob was characteristically passionate, but this time, not so much against the Muslims, but against liberals and socialists. He said that every time he meets a liberal/leftist person, he says, “Well, I guess you’re a mass murderer in training, because that’s where your ideology leads.”

Not wanting to pass along third-party views, Gawker decided to check with Ellis on this characterization and he confirmed the basics. “Liberals are basically socialist in ideology, they believe in massive government,” Ellis told Gawker by telephone. “Socialism, liberalism, they all seek to gain total control. And every time–with Stalin, Pol Pot, and so on—they lead to mass murder. They’re mass murderers!”

There is much more about Ellis’ anti-Muslim views in the file, which has since been deleted, but Trotter writes:

Trimbath’s private attempt to distance Heritage from Ellis’s position—which, boiled down, seems to be that Muslims should be killed at a pace commensurate with their birth rate—didn’t stop the foundation from regarding him as an ally: Elsewhere in his notes, Trimbath refers to Ellis as “our good friend Bob Ellis.”

Another call report characterizes Florida-based donor Betty Anderlik, who gave $62,155 to Heritage between 2003 and 2009, as “cheerful but a bit odd” and sort of stuck on the issue of Obama’s birth certificate. Since that call report was written, Anderlick has given an additional $2.7 million. Post-publication of the call report, we are left to guess about how she feels about the Heritage Foundation since she hung up on the reporter for Gawker when he called her to ask a few questions.

Trotter writes that Heritage actually has a style guide to help staff avoid hyberbole, as in…

Intent: “He wants America to Fail,” “He has a socialist agenda.” Let talk radio do the labeling for us on this one. We need to provide the facts, and let others be the judge.

…and then, as is suggested, seems to bridge the relationship between its own more measured opinions with the ideologies of some of its donors by advertising liberally on conservative talk radio while never specifically endorsing the most radical of those views. Trotter writes:

Dozens of references in the same fundraising documents suggest this strategy has been effective for Heritage. In a report describing a meeting with one donor who had given the foundation nearly $118,00 between 1987 and 2008, a development officer noted: “He listens to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity a lot, hears our commercials and is very excited to hear that our membership is growing so significantly and so quickly. He is very proud to be a Heritage supporter.”

At first Heritage said it was “unable to verify the authenticity of files circulated online,” but later a law firm representing Heritage sent Gawker Media’s legal department a confirmation that the call reports were “hastily-written—and often short-hand—summaries of phone calls and personal meetings between Heritage development staff and donors and potential donors of the Heritage Foundation,” adding, “We absolutely cannot and do not confirm that any alleged statements by donors and potential donors are accurately reproduced in the call report notes.”

I am reminded of my grandmother’s oft-repeated advice not to write down anything you would not want published far and wide. But, more important, I’m also left wondering about the degree to which there is essential agreement between the donors and the Foundation such that it is willing to play a role in a strategy that is anchored in much more extreme ideology, thus resulting in someone like Ellis being in large part unfazed. On the other hand, Anderlik, now a six-figure donor, cannot be happy with being characterized as “a bit odd.”

NPQ does want to acknowledge that our only source for this story is Gawker, which reports that the file in question has since been taken down.—Ruth McCambridge

  • James Lewis

    Interesting to me that people see this “dropped” data differently than they would a dropped wallet. Both are inadvertently misplaced and contain private and personal material, but will seek secure the contents and to notify the owner for the wallet but not the data. This is a sorry commentary on modern ethics.