The Left’s “Dark Money” Coordinator (full series)
A Financial Clearinghouse | Just Passing Through | Funding “Civic Engagement” | Eyes on 2020
Summary: NEO Philanthropy is one of the Left’s best-kept “dark money” secrets. Commanding hundreds of millions of dollars, the group plays a key role in “incubating” dozens of new activist groups and coordinating left-wing efforts to alter the landscape of American politics in the 2020 census.
The NEO Nest
While NEO Philanthropy claims to support some 60 projects, many of them are difficult to identify as fronts for their fiscal sponsor. To date, CRC has identified some 30 projects of NEO Philanthropy and the NEO Philanthropy Action Fund. Many of these projects target specific ethnic minorities or identity politics interests.
NEO Philanthropy manages a handful of projects targeting gay, lesbian, and transgender issues, some of which are no longer in operation. The now-defunct Federal Agencies Project, for instance, pushed for expanded domestic partnership benefits for federal employees. Notably, in 2014 the Federal Agencies Project co-authored a report alongside the Center for American Progress, which identified strategies for increasing LGBT enrollment in Obamacare. While the project was active, the Civitas Public Affairs Group managed the project. Civitas Public Affairs is a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy founded by veterans from the gay marriage group Freedom to Marry, the Gill Foundation, and the now-defunct Gill Action Fund.
NEO also manages a number of projects which target specific ethnic and religious minority groups. MPower Change is perhaps the most notable of these groups as it was founded by the radical Islamic activist Linda Sarsour, who also works prominently in the Black Lives Matter movement and the anti-Israel Left, including the extremist Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). MPower Change and its lobbying arm, MPower Change Action, push voter mobilization and registration campaigns to increase Muslim voter turnout in elections. It’s also been involved in a number of far-left protests, including demonstrations in 2018 to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The National Black Workers Center Project advocates for higher minimum wage laws. Its board of directors mainly consists of representatives from other minimum wage advocacy groups as well as the SEIU and NAACP. Movement Law Lab is a NEO Philanthropy project created in conjunction with Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, the Ford Foundation, and Echoing Green, a nonprofit funder. The Lab acts as a channel for foundations to provide paid fellowships to new litigation nonprofits run by ethnic minority activists, what the Lab calls “movement lawyering.” Fellowships can run as high as $10,000 and involve workshops intended to teach future activists how to form new litigation nonprofits.
NEO Philanthropy supports a number of women’s groups. Women Who Dare supports “women entrepreneurs of color” through online business schools and networking events paid for by NEO Philanthropy and its donors. Reproaction, however, is a pro-abortion activist group that runs hit pieces on pro-life advocacy groups, including Students for Life and the annual March for Life. Like other pro-abortion groups, Reproaction adamantly favors preserving Roe v. Wade—the group attacked the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court last year.
The Women’s March Network is perhaps the best-known project of NEO Philanthropy, even if NEO’s involvement in it is not widely published. Following the 2017 Women’s March, a number of groups claiming the March’s mantle sprung up, each independent of one another. The NEO-supported Women’s March Network is one of the more prominent such groups. Today, the Network runs a number of campaigns, voter mobilization in the 2018 midterm election, and the March 2017 “Day Without a Woman” gun control protest.
Committees and Collaboratives
NEO Philanthropy’s four most prominent projects, however, were never intended to leave the nest. These are its “funder collaboratives”: the Shelby Response Fund, State Infrastructure Fund, Four Freedoms Fund, and Funders Committee for Civic Participation.
Together, they form the meat of NEO Philanthropy’s work in tilting American elections left. Each of the collaboratives—so named because they draw together major grantmaking foundations—focuses on a different aspect of U.S. election law: weakening voter integrity laws, increasing election turnout, and even altering the demographics of the American electorate itself.
Shelby Response Fund
The Shelby Response Fund is rather dramatically named. It was birthed in reaction to the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder which struck down certain parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional for requiring local governments to obtain preclearance with the U.S. Justice Department prior to changing voting laws.
Under those provisions, states in areas with historically low turnout among ethnic minorities (primarily in the South) had to await federal review of every change in their voting laws, even when decades later voter turnout and registration had reached a near-parity. The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in favor of Shelby County amounted to a major change in election law and a victory for states’ rights. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the Court’s opinion:
If Congress had started from scratch in 2006, it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula. It would have been irrational for Congress to distinguish between States in such a fundamental way [as the Voting Rights Act did] based on 40-year-old data, when today’s statistics tell an entirely different story. And it would have been irrational to base coverage on the use of voting tests 40 years ago, when such tests have been illegal since that time. But that is exactly what Congress has done.
Yet while conservatives celebrated the decision, liberals were aghast. The Brennan Center for Justice wrote that Shelby County “opened the floodgates to laws restricting voting throughout the United States.” The New York Times characterized the decision as the culmination of a 50-year effort by Republicans “to undercut or dismantle [the] most important requirements” of the Voting Rights Act. The Atlantic didn’t hold back in a piece entitled, “How Shelby County v. Holder Broke America,” charging the Supreme Court with “set[ting] the stage for a new era of white hegemony.”
In reality, the Shelby County decision enabled states like Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina to implement voting integrity laws which likely otherwise would not have gotten past attorney general Eric Holder’s Justice Department, including voter ID requirements and purging registered voters who hadn’t voted in six consecutive years and failed to confirm their residency.
Enter the Shelby Response Fund, whose goal was “protecting voting rights”—read: fighting voter integrity laws—“in states formerly covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” which the Supreme Court found unconstitutional. While the Fund was always housed at NEO Philanthropy, it was really the product of startup cash from a bevy of left-wing funders and litigation groups: the MacArthur Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and Foundation to Promote Open Society, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), Southern Coalition for Law and Justice, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Advancement Project. Later supporters included the Ford Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and Native American Rights Fund.
While it’s virtually impossible to identify exactly how much money was granted to the project (owing to its status as a fiscally sponsored project for NEO Philanthropy), data from the service FoundationSearch shows eight grants totaling $4.7 million between 2014 and 2015 to NEO “for the Shelby Response Fund.” Soros’s Foundation to Promote Open Society was the single largest grantor and provided nearly 40 percent ($1.8 million) of the funds during that period. The Ford Foundation gave another $1.4 million to the venture.
The Shelby Response Fund mostly serves as a vehicle to funnel money through NEO Philanthropy to allied litigation nonprofits. A 2015 report by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, for instance, plainly detailed $92,000 that MALDEF gave it for “post-Shelby litigation,” using the Fund as a “pass-through.” A 2015 Open Society Foundations board meeting report noted that litigators sponsored by the Fund spent two weeks in North Carolina arguing against the state’s “monster bill” (HB 589), which established voter ID requirements and eliminated out-of-precinct voting. (The law was passed but was struck down by a federal appellate court in 2016.)
But you won’t find a website for the Shelby Response Fund or many details on its activities. In fact, a search for the Fund on NEO’s website reveals nothing on the group.
Yet the Fund has friends in high places. In 2014, President Barack Obama nominated Karen Narasaki—director of the Shelby Response Fund—to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the body which recommends “civil rights” legislation to Congress. While the nomination was noticed by many conservative groups, NEO merely called her “a consultant on a project focused on . . . Shelby County v. Holder.”
State Infrastructure Fund
Like the Shelby Response Fund, the State Infrastructure Fund was created in reaction to a left-wing defeat, this time in the 2010 midterm elections, which saw the Republican Party retake the House of Representatives. Unlike Shelby, though, NEO trumpets the more innocuously named State Infrastructure Fund.
“The first step toward a healthy and fully participatory democracy,” the Fund’s website reads, “is to ensure that all eligible Americans . . . are engaged, empowered and cast a ballot that counts in every election.” In effect this means targeted litigation of so-called “voter suppression” laws in fourteen states: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
And while the Fund is vague about what exactly it does, an archived version of its website notes its past campaigns, including opposition to “suppressive laws like voter ID and proof of citizenship, language access issues and racial and partisan gerrymandering.” The Fund also claims its members helped defeat North Carolina’s so-called “monster bill” in 2016 when a federal court struck the law down. It also targets states with large Asian American/Pacific Islander and Latino populations for voter registration and mobilization drives, since those demographic groups generally support Democrats. The Fund even has a hotline (866-OUR-VOTE) for callers to check their voter registration status and registration deadlines.
As such, the State Infrastructure Fund regularly siphons money to litigation groups that challenge election-related laws, though it doesn’t engage in litigation itself. As one NEO representative said in 2016:
Litigation is important because it offers you the first opportunity to stop something bad from happening through an injunction. A lot of foundations hate litigation because they think it is a money pit. But litigation has been a very important tool. If it were not for all the great legal defense funds and other litigation groups, we would be in much worse shape.
That interview identified MALDEF as a NEO grantee, calling it “a dream team of voting rights litigators,” adding that NEO makes grants to over ten such litigation groups while helping to coordinate which organizations tackle which lawsuits.
Last year, the Fund claimed to be involved in more than 75 election-related lawsuits. And while it’s careful to avoid overt partisanship, the Fund’s interest in “civic participation” looks awfully ideological when its supporters are revealed. Consider that the State Infrastructure Fund receives grants from a range of major foundations on the Left, including the Ford, Open Society, Bauman, Kresge, and Mertz Gilmore Foundations, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Wallace Global Fund. To date, it claims to have granted $60 million to allied groups.
Lisa Versaci is director of the Fund. Versaci is the former Florida state director for the agitation groups People for the American Way and EMILY’s List. Most notably, though, she was the managing director for the Committee on States, the state-level counterpart to the Democracy Alliance, a network of top-tier funders on the Left. The Committee and the Democracy Alliance might be described as the ultimate “dark money” groups on the Left; while neither makes grants directly, they instead serve as a coordination hub for doling out vast sums to favored left-wing groups. The groups’ membership includes high-ranking officials from major labor unions, the Democratic National Committee, Public Interest Network president Doug Phelps, George Soros, Tom Steyer, and others.
Four Freedoms Fund
The Four Freedoms Fund is one of NEO Philanthropy’s older “donor collaboratives,” created in 2003. Unlike the State Infrastructure and Shelby Response Funds, Four Freedoms attacks what it calls “anti-immigrant ordinances” created by conservative legislators with the ultimate goals of expanding immigration to and “civic integration” of newly naturalized citizens in the United States. To that end, the Fund has described itself as “one of the largest funders of pro-immigrant movement groups throughout the country.”
Startup funding for the project came from the usual suspects: $2.8 million in total from the Carnegie Corporation of New York (which provided $1 million) and the Ford, Open Society, Mertz Gilmore, and Knight Foundations. The Fund is currently supported by 14 grantmakers, including the Joyce Foundation, Gates Foundation, Unbound Philanthropy, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and California Endowment.
Notably, the Four Freedoms Fund is co-managed by Geri Mannion, a program director for the Carnegie Corporation, and Taryn Higashi, executive director of Unbound Philanthropy, a grantmaker that primarily supports immigration groups. Higashi previously worked on immigrant programs for the Ford Foundation and is an advisory board member of the Open Society Foundation’s International Migration Initiative. Anita Khashu, founding director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Immigration and Justice, is NEO Philanthropy’s program director for the Four Freedoms Fund.
The Fund takes its name from President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, delivered in 1941 before the Congress, in which he identified four key universal freedoms: the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. (Craig McGarvey, a consultant for the James Irvine Foundation, reportedly suggested the name.) Naturally, the Four Freedoms Fund has four primary goals:
- Advocating for state- and local-based policies “supporting immigrant integration”;
- Touting the “political and social contributions of immigrants” to policymakers;
- Expanding federal immigrant “integration policies”; and
- Encouraging naturalization and civic integration of recent immigrants through English-language programs, education, and voter registration.
That last part—voter registration—is key, and probably the reason the Fund targets five immigrant-heavy or electorally important regions: southern California, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Florida.
Although they’re required to stay nonpartisan—that is, not aligned with a political party—IRS rules permit 501(c)(3) nonprofits to register U.S. citizens to vote (though the specifics vary by state). Those nonprofits aren’t allowed to tell registrants who to vote for, yet inevitably groups with ideological agendas like the Four Freedoms Fund champion their work as “civic participation” with a wink and a nudge.
While it wouldn’t be accurate to call the group pro-open borders, the Four Freedoms Fund is highly critical of any effort to tighten border controls. It’s attacked the American immigration system as “broken” and “regressive” for detaining and deporting illegal immigrants. It’s also provided support to groups that call for the abolition or defunding of ICE, such as the more extremist Detention Watch Network. Predictably, it attacked Arizona’s 2010 immigration law as “draconian” for requiring non-citizens to carry proper documentation and authorizing state police to arrest illegal aliens for failing to do so, calling Arizona “the epicenter of state-based anti-immigrant legislation.”
The Four Freedoms Fund has championed passage of the DREAM Act, a perennial bill proposed by Democrats which would grant permanent residency to numerous aliens living in the U.S. illegally. It’s also lambasted both Republicans and the Obama administration for expanding resources for border security and immigration law enforcement, including laws requiring local law enforcement to fingerprint detained illegal aliens before transferring custody to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In 2017, the Fund wrote of former President Obama:
Despite the incongruity of deporting people who would be eligible for relief under proposed legislation, in his first term Mr. Obama’s administration deported as many immigrants as the administration of George W. Bush did in two terms; over two million have been deported, more than the number of deportations in the United States from 1892 to 1997.
The Fund has arguably had its greatest successes at the state level. One of its grant recipients, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, successfully pushed for the state to adopt an executive order on immigrant integration in 2015, registering 80,000 newly naturalized citizens to vote, and assisting 10,000 non-citizens in obtaining American citizenship.
Similarly, the New York Immigration Coalition, a Four Freedoms Fund grantee, by one report registered a massive 230,000 newly naturalized citizens to vote between 1998 and 2008. Another grant recipient, Families for Freedom, provides legal services to illegal aliens facing deportation.
One of the Fund’s more recent developments is support for greater gay and lesbian immigration into the country. In 2017, it sponsored a report entitled Out of the Closet, Out of the Shadows which noted that the Four Freedoms Fund “work[s] at the intersection of immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights and racial justice.” The report claimed that “75 transgender inmates are housed by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] each night and account for one in five victims of sexual abuse within the detention center network.”
In 2011, the Fund awarded its “Freedom from Fear” award to Tania Unzueta and Reyna Wences, two lesbians living in the country illegally, for the couple’s role in organizing the 2010 National Coming Out of the Shadows Day, a march intended to encourage gay and lesbian non-citizens living illegally in the country to announce their status as illegal aliens.
In the conclusion of The Left’s “Dark Money” Coordinator, learn how NEO plans to influence politics into 2020.