February 28, 2012; Source: FireDogLake

A couple of outlets, notably the liberally oriented FireDogLake and the very conservative Washington Examiner, have reported on a Huffington Post article revealing, so it says, a decision of the Democracy Alliance (DA) to defund a range of progressive movement organizations in favor of focusing grantmaking on nonprofits that are close to the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Among the groups on the purportedly chopping block are the Brave New Foundation, the Center for Progressive Leadership, Free Press, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The groups that would be emphasized for continued if not expanded funding are the Center for American Progress headed by John Podesta, the Center for Community Change led by Deepak Bhargava, and Media Matters with CEO David Brock, all seen as close to the Democratic Party and the Obama White House. But something doesn’t ring totally accurate with this story for a couple of reasons.

First, some background. Formed in 2005, Democracy Alliance is a network of largely individual donors committed to building a progressive movement infrastructure that is meant to counter the conservative think tank and advocacy infrastructure that the left believes was so successful in the 1990s and 2000s. DA donors don’t typically identify themselves and recipients are usually reticent about identifying themselves as receiving DA money. The model the Alliance has chosen is really not to speak about who it funds (by invitation only) and who it defunds. That makes the report in the Huffington Post that DA has defunded well known nonprofits such as those listed above a little murky to say the least.

Do we know that groups were actually defunded or that the DA’s dollars have been so specifically narrowed to a small set of groups that position themselves closely with the Obama administration? We don’t know, and neither does HuffPo for that matter, because the DA doesn’t make public pronouncements about its funding. Over the years, a number of nonprofits have reportedly self-identified as having received DA funding, but even that isn’t really verifiable because 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations do not have to reveal their funding sources.

Will the Democracy Alliance board and staff respond to the Huffington Post article? The problem is the Alliance’s lack of transparency. It has chosen this mode of operations for a variety of reasons, but the consequence of secrecy is that critics look even harder to spot the stories. Telling people not to look for one’s grants makes people look. Telling board members not to speak about the grants leads a disgruntled board member or two, sometimes, to speak. And telling grant recipients not to reveal that they have received funding from the Alliance leads some to intentionally or unintentionally flex their fundraising muscles to say that they got DA support—and leads some others perhaps to say that they got funding when they perhaps haven’t.

We would be disappointed to learn that the Democracy Alliance has shifted to a funding strategy focused only on nonprofits serving as handmaidens to the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party needs an independent, progressive infrastructure outside of its control to act not as “wing nuts,” but as honest critics in order to point out when the party is drifting toward positions favored by moneyed special interests rather than the general public. Given the DA’s origins and some of its leadership, it would be a big surprise to learn that it has chosen to fund only Democratic Party apparatchiki. But DA could find that a dose of transparency helps ward off this kind of brouhaha.—Rick Cohen