More Than 100 Funders of State Policy Network Revealed

An analysis by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has identified $41 million in contributions to the State Policy Network  (SPN) from 103 private foundations, trade groups, donor conduits, and other registered non-profit organizations between 2014 and 2019. The analysis of hundreds of IRS filings and annual reviews reveals the source of more than two-thirds of the right-wing national organization's funding.

A registered 501(c)(3) "charity" with $57.8 million in revenues from 2014 to 2018, the State Policy Network is not required to disclose its funders.

SPN is the national umbrella organization for a web of 162 right-wing "think tanks" and tax-exempt organizations in 50 states, Washington, D.C., Canada. 

SPN's 64 "affiliate" and 98 "associate" members exert influence at the state-level through the production of policy "studies," usually not peer reviewed, and through testimony at legislative hearings. SPN-supported legislation is often based on model bills generated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an industry-funded lobby group that brings together legislators and corporate lobbyists behind closed doors to set state legislative agendas.

The group has doubled its annual revenue in recent years, from $8.1 million in 2014 to $16.8 million in 2018.

Priorities of the right-wing network include crushing unions, promoting fossil fuels and undermining climate science, eliminating regulations and cutting taxes, privatizing education, stopping Medicaid expansion, and hiding the identities of political donors.

Last month, SPN heard from two groups in the well-funded influence network of Leonard Leo on how to use voter fraud messaging to oppose universal mail-in voting. Leo is a Trump confidant and right-wing operative credited with moving our nation's federal courts to the Right.

At SPN's annual meeting, held virtually during the first week of September, many panels focused on how to further libertarian pandemic-related policy goals. And SPN recognized affiliates in Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan for its "Best Issue Campaign" award for their campaigns to push back against Democratic governors' COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.

Tracie Sharp, president and CEO of SPN, served on the initial steering committee for the "Save Our Country Coalition," launched in April by FreedomWorks Foundation, ALEC, the Tea Party Patriots, the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, and others on the Right to push for a "quick" reopening of the states. Sharpe is no longer on that committee.

SPN, however, maintains a landing page on "coronavirus solutions" on its website that includes a section on "Re-opening state economies: A list of recommendations from state think tanks."

SPN's Top Five Funders Provide 83 Percent of Identified Funding

SPN's top five funders have given a combined $34.1 million between 2014 and 2019, 83 percent of the $41 million CMD was able to track given that SPN does not disclose its donors.

The largest share of SPN funding, $26.6 million, came from DonorsTrust and its sister donor conduit Donors Capital Fund, the preferred funding vehicles of the Koch network of right-wing millionaires, billionaires, and foundations created to funnel money anonymously to network partners. The $26.6 million is more than half of the total contributed to SPN. 

In 2018, DonorsTrust gave $7.5 million and Donors Capital Fund chipped in another $50,000 to SPN, comprising 45 percent of SPN’s $16.8 million in revenue that year. In addition, DonorsTrust funneled $12.1 million to 46 of SPN's 64 affiliates in 2018, CMD reported

DonorsTrust is an "associate" member of SPN, and its president and CEO Lawson Bader sits on SPN's Board.

Following DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, Searle Freedom Trust gave the next largest amount to SPN, $4.2 million between 2014 and 2018. Searle also added another $4.5 million in direct contributions to 17 SPN affiliates in 2018 as part of its "Searle Freedom Trust RFP program," in which SPN administers the grants, but Searle's board of directors maintains final grant decisions.

Searle Freedom Trust's wealth was inherited from the pharmaceutical G.D. Searle & Company, which created the artificial sweetener aspartame marketed as "NutraSweet."

The Trust's president and CEO, Kimberly Dennis, received an award from SPN in 2019 for her work advancing "free-market philosophy and policy solutions." Dennis also serves as chairman of the board for DonorsTrust, which she co-founded in 1999 with the late libertarian activist Whitney Ball.

The fourth largest funder to SPN is the Walton Family Foundation, which gave $1.7 million between 2014 and 2019. The Walton Family Foundation, with $4.8 billion in net assets as of 2018, is run by Walmart owners Sam and Helen Walton.

An analysis of 2019 grants distributed by Walton and published to its website shows that it gave an additional $1.2 million to eight SPN affiliate members that year.

The fifth largest known donor to SPN, according to IRS filings and annual reports, is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee-based private foundation with $854.2 million in net assets.

Bradley gave $1.6 million to SPN between 2014 and 2019 according to available tax filings and its 2019 annual review, and added a total of $6.5 million to 28 SPN affiliates.

Bradley has partnered with SPN to create a "Bradley Freedom Grants program," as part of which it distributed $900,000 in grants in 2019 and approved "up to $1.25 million" in grants for this year, according to its website. That program operates similarly to Searle's grant agreement with SPN, where SPN administers the grants, but Bradley's board of directors makes final grant decisions.

The current Chairman of SPN's board of directors is Bradley's vice president for programs Carl Helstrom.

CMD's 2017 investigation exposed Bradley's extensive efforts to weaponize philanthropy in order to build and maintain a stronger right-wing infrastructure to exert influence on policy and politicians.

Bradley discloses grants for the current year on its website and has given $1.6 million to four SPN affiliate members through the second quarter of 2020.

Another 18 funders contributed a total of $5.3 million to SPN between 2014 and 2018 in amounts of $100,000 or more, with the largest being the Sarah Scaife Foundation ($840,000), the Thomas W. Smith Foundation ($793,600), the Roe Foundation ($500,000), and the JM Foundation ($475,000).

Eighty additional funders gave a combined total of $1.6 million over the same period in amounts of less than $100,000.

Donors over $50,000 are listed in the table below. For the full list of SPN contributors, see here.


David Armiak

David Armiak is research director with the Center for Media and Democracy. David joined CMD in 2015, has conducted extensive investigations on dark money, corporate corruption, and right-wing networks, and is responsible for filing and analyzing hundreds of public records requests every year. David has a strong research interest in social movements and political power, and has delivered many talks on the subject.