May 21, 2013; The Nation
Ken Silverstein’s latest investigative report for The Nation is a blockbuster among left-wing political circles. The Center for American Progress is a very well funded progressive think tank. (Imagine a left-wing counterpart during the Obama Administration to the roles of the Heritage Foundation and others during various Republican presidencies.) In Silverstein’s report, CAP is also tied up six ways to Sunday with corporate funders and undisclosed conflicts of interest that would typically enrage critics if they uncovered this kind of stuff about right-wing groups. Silverstein’s register of issues with CAP is quite wide-ranging, including the following:
- Touting in Congressional testimony a firm called First Solar, which received a $3.73 billion federal government loan guarantee for renewable energy projects, as a particularly innovative project. CAP staff member Richard Caperton failed to disclose that First Solar was part of CAP’s Business Alliance, described by Silverstein as “a secret group of corporate donors” who supported CAP. In addition, an Akin Gump lobbyist on the CAP board of directors was also a member of the First Solar board.
- Despite Silverstein’s inquiries, CAP refused to reveal its corporate donors. Silverstein described CAP, which does not publish an annual report with some financial information, as “among the most secretive of all think tanks concerning its donors.” He noted that CAP had a downturn in assets in 2006, but reversed that with the formation of the Business Alliance, which provides donors, according to a confidential fundraising pitch that Silverstein came upon, “a channel for engagement with the corporate community.” It offers three membership levels, including special incentives to donors of $100,000 or more that come with private meetings with CAP executives and roundtable discussions with “Hill and national leaders.”
- Silverstein did find lists of donors involved in CAP’s Business Alliance, apparently at one time staffed by the former manager of corporate relations at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Among the donors Silverstein identified are Comcast, Walmart, General Motors, Pacific Gas and Electric, General Electric, Boeing, Lockheed, and the for-profit University of Phoenix. It isn’t a list of corporate donors that observers would necessarily link with the otherwise progressive politics of CAP. Silverstein charges that one senior CAP staff person was concurrently working for Lockheed, and another was a Boeing lobbyist before joining the liberal think tank.
- According to Silverstein, CAP “(s)taffers were very clearly instructed to check with the think tank’s development team before writing anything that might upset contributors.”
While stirring up a hornet’s nest of conversation among progressive activists, Silverstein’s article doesn’t quite have a smoking gun of evidence pointing to CAP duplicity. CAP’s secrecy about donors is permissible for both its 501(c)(3) and (c)(4) arms. It can choose to be more forthcoming about donor information, but its reluctance to do so is neither illegal nor particularly uncommon.
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From an examination of the Foundation Center’s list of grants to CAP from private foundations, CAP seems hardly dependent on corporate donors, especially if the top corporate grants are $100,000 or more. The 501(c)(3) side of CAP received two grants in 2009 from the Walmart Foundation, then headed by President Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget, Sylvia Mathews, totaling $503,839, a hefty total, plus $50,000 in 2011 from the Walton Family Foundation, and it received $200,000 between 2009 and 2010 from the University of Phoenix Foundation. But these are eclipsed by many other grants from independent private foundations: $2.4 million in 2009 and $1.5 million in 2011 from the Carnegie Corporation; over $1 million from the Annie E. Casey Foundation between 2006 and 2012; just short of $1.2 million in 2009 and 2010 from the Energy Foundation of California; over $1.3 million in 2009 and 2010 from George Soros’ Foundation to Promote Open Society and over $5.2 million from 2005 to 2009 from Soros’ Open Society Institute; $4.2 million from the Rockefeller Foundation between 2009 and 2011; over $2.1 million from the HJW Foundation established by Switzerland’s second richest person, Hansjörg Wyss; several successive years of $1 million grants from the Marisla Foundation; $1 million from the TomKat Charitable Trust established by financial manager Tom Steyer and Kathryn Taylor; and more than $7.5 million between 2009 and 2012 from the Ford Foundation.
CAP doesn’t look like it has to sell much of its soul for corporate money, given foundation grants that most nonprofit think tanks couldn’t imagine supplemented with individual donations—both direct contributions and through donor-advised funds. In fact, the one example Silverstein cites to suggest CAP’s sensitivity about its donors, a piece about Goldman Sachs, doesn’t seem, at least in his reporting, to have resulted in the article (in CAP’s “Think Progress” journal) being scotched.
However, CAP’s access to oodles of big money doesn’t mean that Silverstein’s charges aren’t to be taken seriously. Conflicts of interest are to be avoided, whether big or small, and certainly those involving corporate players the likes of Lockheed and Boeing. CAP’s reluctance to disclose much or anything about its donors is bad practice at a time when this nation and the nonprofit sector need more transparency, not less. And the issue that Silverstein doesn’t address is an odd one: CAP’s funding from some sources seems to have led it to conservative positions on issues of charter schools (see its funding from Walton, the Broad Foundation, and a few others), volunteerism (CAP is a diehard supporter of the Obama Administration’s social innovation programs), and other policies, many compatible with the increasingly pro-corporate posture of the Obama Administration.—Rick Cohen