MoveOn SkylarkingsAs some of you

by Nathan Hamm on 12/28/2003

MoveOn SkylarkingsAs some of you may know, I’m currently a
professional fundraiser. I mostly write grant and sponsorship
proposals, but my favorite part of the job is research, and Guidestar is a particularly useful resource for researching foundation prospects as well as financial info on nonprofits.

For some reason, I got the urge to find financial info on MoveOn, which, according to their website, consists of MoveOn.org a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, MoveOn Voter Fund a 527 Organization (soft money PAC), and the MoveOne PAC.
The first two websites have extremely similar content and this kind of
makes me wonder about plain old MoveOn.org and what it actually does.
They are very careful at the bottom of the website to mention that
MoveOn is all about education and advocacy, the PAC supports
candidates, and the Voter Fund attacks Bush but doesn’t support
specific candidates. All above the board. But again, I wonder about the
501(c)(4).
501(c)(4)’s, Civic Leagues or Social Welfare Organizations, are allowed
to lobby, but must in some way support “social welfare,” as nebulous a
concept as that may be. It’s funny though, MoveOn.org doesn’t really
look like the examples
noted by the IRS, such as homeowners’ associations, volunteer fire
companies, organizations that hold annual religious festivals, and
organizations that promote industrial development, to name a few.
MoveOn.org seems a lot more like a way to rope money in to their PAC
and 527 activities, which are related to promoting and opposing
specific candidates for office. As a 501(c)(4), MoveOn.org is specifically prohibited
from intervening in elections. They are allowed lobby to promote social
welfare, and I’m currently waiting for a response to my question of
whether or not the (c)(4) engages in lobbying activity and what kind.
I’m not going to accuse MoveOn.org of being in violation of its exempt
status because by the letter of the law, it’s not (as my brief reading
of it goes anyway). I just find it annoying that its idea of social
welfare is tied up in encouraging people to oppose and support specific
candidates and driving money towards a PAC and a 527. Seems like an
abuse of the spirit of the law. For more info on exempt organizations
during election years, check this (PDF) out.

As an aside, donations through MoveOn.org’s website go to the (c)(4) and go towards influencing legislation.
I personally believe that honesty, integrity, and good stewardship are
crucial components of good fundraising, so again, it bothers me that
much of that money doesn’t really do that. Unfortunately, MoveOn.org’s
tax return is unavailable at Guidestar, so I can’t tell you where their
money is going or even how much they have.
What I can tell you is that according to MoveOn.org’s faq, the San Francisco Foundation Community Initiative Funds, a 501(c)(3)
tax-exempt organization that is not allowed to attempt to influence the
outcome of elections. They aren’t doing go directly, but.. Anyway, you
can see their 2002 990-PF
(PDF) at Guidestar. On page 7, we see expenses that would make our
finance committee go nuts, and on page 12, we see that they gave
$15,249 to MoveOn.org to raise awareness of the individual’s ability to
make a difference in American politics (on page 20, it mentions a grant
of $17,698, so I don’t know if these were two different amounts or the
$15,249 was the part related to political activity). It just occurred
to me that you may have to register to see the Guidestar content. I
trust all of you, but I can’t really give you access to my employer’s
account. I think you can sign up for free access.
While googling various things, I found this post
from the evangelical outpost. I think he’s a little bit off in his
characterization, but he has something right, asking whether or not
they should benefit from tax exemption if they aren’t exactly in line
with their 501(c)(4) requirements.
UPDATE:
I knew that I had recently read something about foreign donations to MoveOn.org, and I was right (hat tip: Instapundit). Admirably, MoveOn.org is no longer taking donations
from those outside the US, just as any political campaign would. Again,
this gives reason to wonder whether or not they should get a (c)(4)
designation.
Then there’s the Daily Mislead, which:

…provide(s)
an accurate daily chronicle for journalists of mis-representations,
distortions and downright misleading statements by President Bush and
the Bush Administration. Misleader.org is presented as a service of
MoveOn.org, the on-line public interest group.

Should a
(4)(c) be allowed to promote social welfare by attacking a candidate,
and does this constitute involvement in a political campaign as opposed
to education or lobbying?
Now, if the Daily Mislead was a part of the 527 or the PAC,
we’d have a different situation here, but click on its “donate” link,
and you get… MoveOn.org, the 501(c)(4), the entity that is not
supposed to be supporting or opposing candidates. Once again, I know
there’s another side to the story; that, technically, MoveOn.org is
just providing information, but if its not with the intent to keep Bush
from getting re-elected, I’m illiterate.
It should also be mentioned that the Daily Mislead is guilty of stretching the truth to the breaking point.

And, if you want any more on how MoveOn.org abuses its tax status, there’s this from The Independent:

MoveOn.org
denies that it has been taking money from anti-Bushites abroad. It is,
however, working hard to get its “down with Bush” message out to
voters.
The group recently launched a competition for anyone with a talent for
film-making to produce a 30-second television piece to highlight where
liberals believe the President has gone wrong. Dubbed “Bush in 30
Seconds”, the competition is partly run by Mr Soros’s son, Jonathan
Soros.

And there’s this too:

Philanthropists
George Soros and Peter Lewis have pledged to match every $2 donation to
the voter fund with a dollar of their own, up to $5-million. MoveOn
will use the fund, which could be as much as $15-million, to buy
airtime during the presidential campaign.

I don’t know if
this is a case of opaque reporting, but it’s strange that MoveOn.org
wants to buy the airtime when it’s the Voter Fund that is doing the
Bush in 30 Seconds ad contest (check out their judges). Soros has donated $2.5 million to the voter hund, and I don’t know why this organization (MoveOn.org) with a tiny staff and very low costs
needs $5 million. If it does, it’d be nice to know where it goes.
As if the entire incestuous relationship between the entities that make
up MoveOn isn’t hard enough to follow, there’s also the confusion over
where Soros’s money is going. Here it is in his own words,
where’s he’s on the defensive over accusations that his donations are
inappropriate. Soros says that MoveOn.org files its returns on time and
they are open about their intentions. Anyone know where I can find a
copy of their returns?
And, oh yeah, after I got this email:

Nathan – Donations through www.moveon.org go to the c4. I notice you are not
a member, though.

– C


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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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