October 3, 2011; Source: PoliticoNonprofits that are members of networks or federations know the trials and tribulations of fundraising for local operations. On one hand, you have the attractiveness of the national “brand”-—the United Way, the Red Cross, Save the Children, etc.  That counts for a lot and gets local groups into offices that they could never have accessed as small individual organizations.

On the other hand, the local arms of national networks and federations sometimes find themselves struggling to keep up with the national operations, directly or indirectly even competing with the national’s brand appeal to donors. 

A little of that seems to be happening in the Tea Party movement.  Politico reports that the national groups that have latched on to the Tea Party message—Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, Club for Growth, Leadership Institute and Tea Party Express—took in $79 million in 2010, a 61-percent increase over their 2009 fundraising totals.  Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks told Politico about plans to raise and spend $156 million aimed at defeating Democrats in Congress and in the White House.

Local Tea Party operations however have encountered big time fundraising difficulties, which leads them to be more dependent on their national brethren for resources, but also more at risk for becoming subject to top-down control from these national operations.  Some Tea Party groups have chafed at their national partners, concerned that the national players run by known pre-Tea Party politicians (like former Republican member of Congress, Dick Armey, paid a $500,000 salary by FreedomWorks, though Politico mistakenly attributes Armey’s salary to Americans for Prosperity) might end up using and manipulating rather than taking direction from the grassroots element of the Tea Party movement. 

Politico quotes Ned Ryan, president of American Majority, a nonprofit described as helping local Tea Party people organize, to say, “There isn’t an unlimited pool of cash in the conservative movement, and my concern is that some of these big national groups are sucking up money that could otherwise go to the local tea party leaders who are the ones really making things happen on the ground.”  Created only in 2008, American Majority itself is one of those national groups doing well on the Tea Party bandwagon, a 501(c)(3) that generated $1.9 million in total revenues in 2009 and $3.4 million in 2011 (including $112,000 in program service revenue). 

Armey’s day-to-day director at FreedomWorks, Matt Kibbe, countered the criticism with a statement of organizational humility:

The test for a national group in this decentralized world is whether or not we’re adding value, because these activists are like consumers in a market, and groups that don’t respond to their needs and demands become obsolete…I view myself as their servant at this point and, if I don’t view FreedomWorks that way, I think we go away.

Kibbe’s statement is a good laugher, that a multi-million dollar operation like FreedomWorks (with gross revenues in 2010 of $4.5 million at the FreedomWorks Foundation, the (c)(3) side of the organization, and $9.25 million at FreedomWorks Inc., the (c)(4) arm) would voluntarily “go away”.   

Welcome to the real world of fundraising, Tea Partyers.  Groups that preexisted the advent of the Tea Party, like the seven year old FreedomWorks, or more recent organizations, such as the Our Country Deserves Better PAC, created in 2008 by a Republican lobbyist in California, but quickly rebranded as the Tea Party Express, have glommed onto what was, for whatever you think of their politics, a true grassroots social movement.  These national groups aren’t stupid.  Like Tammany Hall’s George Washington Plunkitt in the 19th century, Armey and Kibbe could say about the Tea Party movement, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”  It’s only political naiveté that would make local Tea Party leaders surprised.—Rick Cohen