Immediately after Donald Trump was elected, it was clear there would be an upsurge of giving by wealthy progressive donors looking to block his policy agenda and, even more ambitiously, to bring his presidency to an early end.
There's a rich history in recent times of philanthropists who go to war with the White House. Richard Scaife gave millions to dig up dirt on Bill Clinton in Arkansas, and other conservative donors also bankrolled anti-Clinton attacks, with private money fueling a very real "vast right-wing conspiracy" against the president. During the Bush years, alarmed donors rallied to bankroll several new progressive institutions, including the Democracy Alliance, the Center for American Progress, and Media Matters for America. Under Obama, the opposition game changed again—with conservative funders giving heavily to undermine the administration's agenda, including financing a wide-ranging legal attack on the Affordable Care Act after it was enacted in 2010.
Now it's Donald Trump who is in the crosshairs of activist donors, some of whom pledged millions to fund the "resistance" within weeks of the election. Back in January, we reported that David Brock convened a meeting of over 100 top donors in Aventura, Florida, to plot out a strategy for destroying the Trump presidency. A leaked memo outlined Brock’s plan for weakening Trump in various ways, including through investigation and litigation, the two core strategies used against Bill Clinton. Although the details of Brock's current operations are not known, it's worth noting that quite a bit of the work he proposed can be legally funded through tax-deductible "charitable" gifts to 501(c)(3) organizations.
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Since January, backing investigative journalism has emerged as a favored strategy of a number of funders who are alarmed by the Trump presidency. Donald Trump might not be too fond of journalists, but his rise has been a great boon to nonprofit journalism. From late 2016 through today, a host of funders including the Knight Foundation, the Barr Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Pierre Omidyar, and Craig Newmark have kicked in money for nonprofit news. In particular, the Omidyar-funded First Look Media has been a leader of the pack.
While only some of these funders explicitly cite Trump as the reason they’re giving, it’s pretty clear that they're all alarmed by this president's hostility to the media and elements of his broader policy agenda. In addition, some funders—most notably Pierre Omidyar—make no secret of just how much they despise everything that Donald Trump and his administration stand for. Among other things, major new funding is flowing to nonprofit media organizations that are digging deep into the unprecedented conflicts of interest around the president and his team.
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Now, with Trump’s alleged ties to Russia dominating headlines, investigative journalism focused in this area is receiving new attention from progressive donors. Recently, Mother Jones launched an entire project dedicated to the Trump-Russia saga called “Trumpocracy: The Russia Connection.” Looking to raise $500,000, Mother Jones’ reporting has an urgent tone. In an overview piece, the nonprofit’s CEO and editor in chief stressed the need for independent watchdogs: “This story will move forward only if journalists expose what politicians are hiding—and journalists can only do that when they have the time, and space, to go deep.”
That overview also serves as a call for donations, and so far, no donor has been as generous as the tech leader Rob Glaser. Through the Glaser Progress Foundation, Glaser donated $200,000 to launch the Russia project at Mother Jones and promises another $50,000 once the full $500,000 is raised. “For the past year, our democracy has been under attack by a murky alliance between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin,” Glaser said. “This story requires determination, data, and dollars, and there’s no media outlet on earth better positioned to take it on than Mother Jones.”
Throughout his philanthropic career, RealNetworks founder Rob Glaser has always stressed liberal values, especially around the media. Since 1999, the Glaser Progress Foundation has been a consistent donor for an independent and progressive media, funding Democracy Now!, the ACLU, and Media Matters for America. Like the nonprofit journalists he supports, Glaser sees a direct connection between a healthy democracy and a vigorous media sector. The Glaser Progress Foundation has also given grants for HIV/AIDS funding, animal advocacy, and finding ways to “measure progress.”
Glaser has been keyed into possible connections between Donald Trump and Russia for months. His interest here can be traced to last fall, when he started a site called PutinTrump.org to investigate the “cozy relationship” between the two men. Leading the PutinTrump.org charge was Bill Buzenberg, former head of the Center for Public Integrity and vice president at NPR. PutinTrump.org has since been folded into the Mother Jones investigation—a fitting home for this project, since the magazine itself has been on this case since last fall. It notes that its Washington bureau chief, David Corn, "was the first and only reporter to break the explosive news that a former British counterintelligence officer had assembled memos containing allegations that Moscow had tried to co-opt and compromise Trump, and that the FBI was interested in this material." Ongoing coverage by Mother Jones can be accessed here.
Big donors are only one part of nonprofit journalism’s funding ecosystem. Efforts like the Mother Jones Russia investigation also rely on smaller donations, and the project’s leaders are already calling it the most successful U.S. journalism crowdfunding campaign they’re aware of. This success comes amid a broader upsurge of small donations to nonprofit journalism outfits, especially ProPublica, as we've reported.
Crowdfunding campaigns are often driven by hot issues in the news. And to the extent that the scandals around Trump continue to metastasize, donations to media outlets working this beat are likely to continue. In other words, the "Trump bump" for nonprofit media is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.