Foundation Watch

The Cabin Road Foundation and Philanthropy’s “Charity” Problem

In 2021, a virtually unknown private foundation briefly became a leading 501(c)(3) funder of two of the country’s most well-known environmental direct-action groups. While this would be notable in and of itself, the juxtaposition of this funding against an otherwise rather traditional charitable grantmaking record makes the Cabin Road Foundation an apt vehicle for illustrating the contrasts that exist in contemporary institutional philanthropy. In turn, this might help explain why Americans—and particularly conservatives—appear to be losing faith in philanthropy as an institution.

Millions for Charity

The Cabin Road Foundation is a 501(c)(3) private foundation located in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is headed by two former professional tennis players: Anne Grousbeck Matta and her husband Horacio Matta. Anne is the daughter of H. Irving Grousbeck, an entrepreneur, corporate executive, and university business professor. The Cabin Road Foundation was capitalized with a $40 million contribution in 2012 from H. Irving Grousbeck’s now-defunct Grousbeck Family Foundation, and it received another contribution valued at $141.75 million from him personally in late 2016. Since its establishment the Cabin Road Foundation has paid out over $142 million in grants—about two-thirds disbursed just since December 2019. Its most recent tax filings disclosed total net assets of just over $254 million. The foundation has no website, and very little has been written about it or its grantmaking.

A review of annual filings shows that the Cabin Road Foundation has funneled a great deal of money to some seemingly quite worthy and traditionally charitable causes. Over the years, it has given more than $9 million to a private college prep school in Silicon Valley and over $10 million to support a unique basketball-themed charter school in New York City. It has sent $10 million to a food bank in Alameda, $5 million to Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco, almost $7.5 million to a local youth violence prevention nonprofit, and $2.5 million to an organization that uses horses in therapy and rehabilitation. It has given grants to local YMCAs, homeless support services, animal shelters, schools, and youth development groups. It has even given over $1 million to the local police department in Redwood City, California, at least some of which was to help fund a new health and wellness program for the department’s officers.

Other major grants include over $2.5 million to the University of San Francisco, $10 million to a wrongful convictions project at California Western School of Law, $14 million to the University of California, Berkeley, and over $28 million to Stanford University. Certainly, one could reasonably wonder whether Stanford’s $36.5 billion endowment truly needs large cash infusions from private philanthropy, but funding for higher education would traditionally be placed within the realm of charitable activity.

Millions for Radicalism

While the Cabin Road Foundation has made a handful of grants to left-of-center activist groups here and there—the $2 million it gave to Media Matters for America is notable, for instance—its grantmaking would be largely unremarkable to those who study public policy-oriented philanthropy were it not for 2021, when it suddenly became a major funder two nationally prominent environmental activist groups simultaneously.

One of these was the Greenpeace Fund, a United States–based 501(c)(3) affiliate of the perennially controversial eco-activist group, which is probably the most well-known environmental direct-action organization in the world. The Cabin Road Foundation gave the Greenpeace Fund $10 million in 2021, which was by far the largest contribution the group reported that year and accounted for over 28 percent of its entire annual revenue. It is certainly no small thing for a virtually unknown private foundation to suddenly—if briefly—become the dominant funder of one of the few environmental activist groups that can credibly claim to be a household name.

That same year, the Cabin Road Foundation also gave $8 million to a much newer group called the Sunrise Movement Education Fund, after having granted it $2 million the year before. The two organizations’ tax years don’t precisely align. The Cabin Road Foundation’s covers December 2020 through November 2021, while the Sunrise Movement Education Fund’s covers January 2021 through December 2021. Assuming the $8 million grant was indeed made in calendar year 2021, this would have amounted to over 54 percent of the Sunrise Movement Education Fund’s entire total revenue for that year. Regardless, it is a significant sum.

The Sunrise Movement Education Fund is the 501(c)(3) charitable affiliate of the 501(c)(4) Sunrise Movement, which is the activist group most closely associated with proposals to enact an eco-socialist Green New Deal. Although media reports have described it rather mildly as a “progressive group of young activists” and the group has primarily made headlines for its environmental protests, the truth is that the Sunrise Movement is a deeply radical organization that aims to upend society in ways that go far beyond total economic decarbonization by 2030—itself an absurd proposition. Its other “demands” include abolishing the police (which it calls a “brutally violent and discriminatory” institution), paying government reparations both to black Americans domestically and the “Global South” internationally, materializing “millions” of government-directed jobs, and generally bringing as many facets of society as possible under socialized control.

The Sunrise Movement is also one of the 70+ members of the Progressive International, a global coalition of the radical far-left, including many avowed communists. The Progressive International’s contempt for market capitalism (a “virus” to be eradicated) and American foreign policy (the “lynchpin” of a global system of “psychotic, unconstrained violence”) is exceeded only by its inveterate hatred of Israel, which extends all the way to justifying terrorism.

Philanthropy Versus Charity

The Cabin Road Foundation’s grantmaking thus illustrates several features of contemporary institutional philanthropy that are worth thinking about, particularly as they relate to the concept of “charity.”

First, there can be a conspicuous tension between ultra-wealthy private foundations and their aggressively anti-capitalist grantees. Indeed, the Sunrise Movement believes that philanthropy itself is “a tool to uphold capitalism and white supremacist culture” and that it serves only to create “legal tax havens to facilitate the transfer of wealth from the many to the few” through which “the elite will spend a small percentage of this wealth under the auspice of charity.” It sees philanthropy merely as “an imperfect form of [wealth] redistribution,” to be exploited until capitalism is sufficiently smashed.

The Cabin Road Foundation gave $10 million to support this group. Does it apply its grantee’s cynical expediency to its own philanthropic philosophy? Considering some of its other grantmaking initiatives, that certainly seems hard to believe. In fact, under the eco-socialist statism championed by the Sunrise Movement, it is doubtful that the Cabin Road Foundation—endowed as it is with the fruits of free-market capitalism—could even exist.

The larger issue is philanthropy’s institutionalized ideological biases, which as a rule are considerably to the left of the general population. There are signs that this is eroding its credibility. In September 2023, Independent Sector released its fourth annual survey of trust in civil society. Among the report’s most striking findings was that only 31 percent of respondents reported having high trust in private foundations “to do what is right,” which was down a remarkable 23 percent just since 2020. High levels of trust in philanthropy overall saw a marked 12 percent decline among Republicans over that same period, though there was a slight increase among Democrats. These findings would align with increased public awareness of philanthropy “oppressively arid, progressive monoculture.”

Finally, what exactly is “charity?” The legal definition, in the sense of what private foundations are permitted to fund, is (for the most part, rightly) quite broad. At the same time, because it is ultimately the American public that incentivizes the charitable sector with tax exemptions and deductions, it is worth asking just how disconnected specific acts of philanthropy can be from what most ordinary Americans would likely consider “charitable.” To put a finer point on it, if a survey asked respondents to evaluate the Alameda Food Bank and the Earl Monroe New Renaissance Basketball School on one hand, and the Greenpeace Fund and the Sunrise Movement Education Fund on the other, based on how well each of these $10 million Cabin Road Foundation grantees fit within their personal definition of “charity,” how much of a discrepancy might we expect to see? And if there is indeed a significant mismatch, what are the implications?

Philanthropists have the right to support causes that are important to them, and the public has the right to examine and evaluate those causes. One component of such an evaluation is the opportunity cost: What could the money have otherwise been used to support? To those concerned about philanthropy’s current state of politicization, one of the great worries is that ideologically motivated public policy grantmaking will continue supplanting traditional charity at the nation’s grantmakers, to the detriment of both worthy causes and the legitimacy of the philanthropic sector as a whole.

Robert Stilson

Robert runs several of CRC’s specialized projects. Originally from Indiana, he has a B.A. from Hanover College and a J.D. from University of Richmond School of Law, where he graduated…
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