Foundation Watch

The Butler Family Fund: A Charitable Mask For Foreign Influence

At a glance, the Butler Family Fund appears to be a small foundation altruistically bent on addressing two of the world’s most prolific problems: homelessness and criminal justice reform. But the Washington, D.C.-based foundation’s financial records indicate it works in lockstep with the Swiss-based Oak Foundation. The Oak Foundation doles out hundreds of millions in grants to left-wing initiatives and accounts for around one-third of the Butler Family Fund’s total revenues. It is a shady partnership that calls into question the influence foreign philanthropic entities have in American policy debates.

Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the Oak Foundation does not have to worry about American government oversight as it funnels monetary support into notable left-wing philanthropies. In a June 2019 report, Capital Research Center’s Hayden Ludwig and Kevin Mooney reported on the “Swiss mega-funder” whose American arm—the San Francisco-based Oak Foundation USA—paid out $430 million in grants between 1999 and 2016. According to the online service Foundation Search, Oak’s grant recipients include a mixed bag of “social justice” and environmentalist groups that routinely engage in political activism. (Think of the social justice-oriented Tides Foundation and left-wing environmentalist agenda organization the Climate Works Foundation.)

Though overseas charitable exchanges are legally permissible per IRS regulations, it’s worth noting international “private” foundations like Oak sit on top of millions in assets and have the capacity to direct financial resources. This allows Oak to quietly fund smaller and less conspicuous pass-through fronts. Over the past decade, tax returns indicate that Oak Foundation is, for the most part, the Butler Family Fund’s main charitable contributor. Between 2001 and 2017, the only source of the Butler Family Fund’s charitable income was the Oak Foundation for all but four years (2001, 2002, 2009, and 2013).

The Oak Foundation’s grants account for 84 percent of the Butler Family Fund’s net income. Without the Oak Foundation, the Butler Family Fund arguably might not exist.

According to Foundation Search, Oak Foundation contributions to the Butler Family Fund are designated for charitable causes related to housing and feeding the homeless, addressing corruption, and reforming the criminal justice system. Yet, the Butler Family Fund, like many Left-wing nonprofits, pushes a big-government political agenda disguised as mere “charity.”

Instead of directly feeding, clothing, and housing the less fortunate, left-leaning foundations increasingly use their resources to call for more government spending and the expansion of government-funded social welfare programs. Take “global warming” for example. With enough resources, foundations could fund private nature preserves or subsidize programs that promote energy efficiency or even alternative energy.  But that’s not what they do. They use their deep pockets to urge federal agencies to mandate changes, increase taxes (like the often-touted carbon tax), and divert federal resources away from other areas like education or defense. The central questions here are of more or less government involvement. And this is a question that should be decided by Americans without foreign intervention.

The Butler Family Fund’s total grantmaking since 2001 floats just below $16 million. Its top grantee is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)-—a left-of-center civil liberties group, which recently endorsed increasing government spending as repayment for slavery and segregation. Its lawyers also advocate for looser enforcement of immigration laws.

According to Foundation Search, Butler Family Fund has given the ACLU and its various affiliates over $1 million in total grants, with specific grants allotted to addressing drug policy, ending the death penalty, as well as general support grants. Since 2001, Butler also contributed to Greenpeace ($60k) for “education on global warming,” the Center for Community Change ($300k) for expanding government subsidized “affordable housing programs,” and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in research into social welfare policy.

After Congressional Democrats investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election, many Americans became concerned about foreign political intrusions. Regardless of political party affiliation, the prospect of foreign philanthropy using its wealth to encourage the U.S. government to increase the budget deficit and expand the welfare state is something that should be on the public’s radar.

The Oak Foundation, and mega-philanthropic funders like it, can’t help but be interconnected with widespread global agendas and politics. As long as left-wing watchdogs continue to worry about “money in politics” the activities of international philanthropic networks deserve close scrutiny.