By Will Evans, Center for Investigative Reporting
(The Secret Money blog is a joint project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and National Public Radio.)
Conservatives are on the march against the community organization ACORN, accusing its massive voter registration effort of fraud and faulting Obama for having any connections to the group. As we reported this morning, ACORN doesn’t necessarily mind the attention.
But what exactly is ACORN? Actually, it’s many, many things. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now has dozens of affiliated entities, from a home-buying assistance corporation to community radio stations to liberal research and training institutes. The giant web of ACORN organizations, primarily based in Louisiana, has been funded by a mix of labor union money, government grants (which really drive conservatives crazy) and charitable contributions from large foundations. See below for a breakdown of funding sources.
Plus, Project Vote—the voter mobilization organization that works closely with and draws its leadership from ACORN—paid ACORN and an affiliate $5.4 million in 2006. But where does Project Vote get its money? Normally it’s hard to tell, but we obtained a 2006 tax return showing the nonprofit’s funders, including: $4.5 million from the charitable trust of the investment management firm Vanguard; $425,000 from the Bauman Family Foundation, which also gives to the League of Conservation Voters and People for the American Way; and $396,000 from the liberal phone company Working Assets.
ACORN’s biggest union backer, the Service Employees International Union, gave more than $4 million to the community organization and its affiliates from 2006-07, according to Dept. of Labor filings. One SEIU local union, the Illinois Homecare Workers and Home Childcare Providers, sprouted from ACORN’s organizing efforts and pays rent to ACORN.
ACORN’s affiliates also pick up money from the Change to Win labor federation, the Food and Commercial Workers Union and the United Federation of Teachers, among others.
Much to the dismay of conservatives, the Department of Housing and Urban Development gave ACORN Housing Corp. $8.2 million from 2003 to 2006, according to USAspending.gov. ACORN Housing provides counseling, classes, and access to special loans to low-income homebuyers. HUD has given another $1.6 million to other ACORN affiliates since 2003.
The Environmental Protection Agency also chipped in, with $100,000 for ACORN’s Louisiana Environmental Justice Project in 2004, for a program to rid homes of lead. The Republican National Committee wants a federal probe of ACORN. But the Justice Department has liked ACORN enough to give a New York ACORN affiliate $138,000 in 2005, for a juvenile delinquency prevention program.
The foundations that give to ACORN & Co. vary widely. There are some classically liberal ones: The Bauman Family Foundation gave $350,000 to ACORN’s American Institute for Social Justice. George Soros’ Open Society Institute gave $300,000 to that institute and $250,000 to ACORN proper. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation gave the institute $1.8 million.
But some of the biggest donors are mainstream foundations of big corporations, according to data from the Foundation Center. The JPMorgan Chase Foundation gave $2.4 million to ACORN Housing and the Bank of America Charitable Foundation gave $1.4 million. Citigroup’s foundation gave $1.5 million to the social justice institute.
Other major donors include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave $1.4 million for an education reform campaign. The Ford Foundation has given $1.3 million, including $257,000 this year for “public education and technical assistance to grassroots groups working to expand access to the Earned Income Tax Credit, living wage ordinances and paid sick days.” Foundations affiliated with the late founder of the United Parcel Service gave a combined $6.4 million.
The 527 organization Fund for America was set up last year by top liberal donors and operatives to help fund pro-Democratic organizations this election season, but it ended up folding. The Fund, itself bankrolled by George Soros and others, gave $200,000 to ACORN.
ACORN has also had its own affiliated 527s. Communities Voting Together, for example, was founded to “educate and mobilize low income voters in key communities in key battleground states in the run-up to the 2004 presidential elections, focusing on Latino and African-American neighborhoods.” The group received $125,000 from film producer Jeanne Levy-Hinte; $100,000 from environmentalist donor John R. Hunting, whose wealth comes from the Steelcase office furniture company; $80,000 from the president of Working Assets, and $70,000 from Linda Pritzker of the Hyatt fortune.
There’s a lot more to ACORN’s financial picture that we can’t complete here. ACORN’s network is complex, and money often transfers from one affiliate to another, making it hard for outsiders to keep track of it all. But one thing is for sure: ACORN is busy.