The nonprofit, funded by billionaire George Soros, donated $140 million to political teams in 2021
Hungarian-born U.S. investor and philanthropist George Soros answers questions after a speech on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos May 24, 2022.
Fabrice Coffrini | AFP | Getty Images
A nonprofit funded by billionaire George Soros quietly donated $140 million to advocacy organizations and election initiatives in 2021, and another $60 million to like-minded charities.
Soros, who personally donated $170 million to Democratic candidates and campaigns during the 2022 midterm election, disseminated the additional donation through the Open Society Policy Center — a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization that under-funded Soros’s Open Society falls foundation network, according to a copy of its 2021 tax return obtained by CNBC, representing the latest data available. The Open Society Policy Center also distributed $138 million to advocacy groups and causes in 2020. Two of Soros’ children sit on his board of directors, tax returns and his website show.
Donations total about half a billion dollars as of January 2020 — at least — Soros’ contributions to political campaigns and causes are mostly to dark-money nonprofit groups and mostly go to political causes linked to the Democratic Party.
Soros’ charitable donations don’t always go directly to political causes. Funds sometimes flow from one of its nonprofits to another before being spent on advertising, organizing, and social media campaigns that reach voters directly.
Many of the Open Society Policy Center’s 2021 donations were not necessarily intended to influence the midterm elections, according to the foundation’s website. At the same time, Tom Watson, an editorial director at the Open Society Foundations, conceded in an email to CNBC that “there are definitely some OSPC grants that go to organizations dedicated to fighting voter suppression, supporting voter registration and the expand citizen participation”. These are all basic democratic principles.
Complex network of non-profit organizations
The foundation network includes several affiliated 501(c)(4) groups, a type of nonprofit organization under US tax law that is allowed to engage in political activity, as well as more traditional 501(c)(3) charities, showing their website and tax returns .
All nonprofit organizations fall under Soros’ global Open Society Foundations network. It describes itself as “the world’s largest private funder of independent groups working for justice, democratic governance and human rights” and has dozens of offices in the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
It also operates the Open Society University Network, which includes more than two dozen colleges around the world, including sponsoring research projects through its Democracy Institute. While not illegal, the complex network of related nonprofits, research grants, and charities funded by Soros obscures the origin of the donations.
Through the network, Soros has donated more than $32 billion over the years, according to his website. It says it awards “thousands of grants each year to build inclusive and vibrant democracies,” with active projects in more than 120 countries.
Wealthy special interests
“Wealthy special interests and individuals try to hide their influence in elections, including by funding politically active nonprofits, because they know the ambassador is important,” said Aaron McKean, attorney for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “Voters have a right to know who is trying to influence elections so they can make informed decisions when filling out their ballot.”
The Open Society Policy Center’s 2021 budget was funded by a single donation of $196 million from the Open Society Foundation network, according to foundation officials. A 501(c)(3)-affiliated nonprofit group called the Open Society Institute received a $1.78 billion donation in QECL stock from the Foundation to Promote Open Society, which the billionaire businessman founded and is funded.
In the US, the Open Society Policy Center has donated to a variety of politically active groups and causes since the start of the 2020 election cycle, including $4.5 million in September to Reproductive Freedom for All, according to data from nonpartisan monitoring organization OpenSecrets. The campaign supported Michigan’s successful Proposition 3 ballot initiative, which enshrined abortion rights in the state’s constitution.
The group also donated $1 million in 2020 to a campaign supporting a ballot measure to condemn the Oklahoma prison titled Yes on 805. The electoral initiative would have ended repeat sentences for nonviolent crimes in the state; it failed in the 2020 elections.
The vast majority of Soros’ personal donations during the 2022 cycle went to two super PACs, Democracy PAC and Democracy PAC II, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Both groups are led by the billionaire’s son, Alexander Soros, who is also on the board of the Open Society Institute and the Open Society Policy Center. Politico reported that these PACs should help Democratic candidates and groups in 2022 and future election cycles.
Records show that Democracy PACs, which by law have an unlimited amount of money to raise and spend, donated millions of dollars in the midterms to organizations that actively helped Democrats run for office, including support for the Senate Majority PAC and the House Majority PAC.
The other Open Society Policy Center donations listed in their 2021 990:
- America voices: $16.9 million
A voting rights group focused on educating people on how to vote by mail.
- demand justice: $0.4.5 million
A liberal legal advocacy group. It recently raised just under $6 million, according to a tax filing acquired by Politico. Demand Justice earlier this year announced a $1 million ad buy to support the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
- Equis Labs: $6.48 million
A group dedicated to increasing Latino voting.
- Future Forward USA Promotion: $5.5 million
This 501(c)(4) group donated over $60 million during the 2020 election to its sister PAC, Future Forward USA, which spent millions in support of Biden’s run. The Open Policy Center’s website said its 2021 donations were in part to “support political advocacy for the Build Back Together legislative package and a global vaccine campaign.” A slimmed-down version of the bill was renamed the Inflation Reduction Act; it was passed and put into effect in August.
- Sixteen Thirty Fund: $23.9 million
The group acts as a “dark” money fund for “progressive changemakers” and groups that often align themselves with the Democratic Party. It provides operational support, such as human and legal resources, to progressive candidates. It recently raised more than $189 million and awarded $107 million in grants.
Emerson Morrow, a spokesman for America Votes, told CNBC that funding from the Open Society Policy Center “has been instrumental in supporting America Votes’ mission.” The group says it has addressed “electoral suppression and the onboarding of new and hard-to-reach voters” in 2021 and is focused on expanding voting access in key states of Nevada, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Open Society Policy Center’s website lists a single donation of $23.9 million to the group in 2021 to “support the impartial engagement of voters across multiple states,” according to its website.
America Votes, a 501(c)(4), raised over $245 million and awarded over $170 million in grants from July 2020 to June 2021, according to its most recent tax return. According to OpenSecrets, notable contributions included a $14 million donation to Family Friendly Action PAC, a super PAC that has spent $7.2 million supporting Democratic candidates running during the 2022 election cycle for run for Congress. It also donated $9.7 million to Black PAC, a super PAC that spent $9.5 million in support of Democrats during the last midterms.
Amy Kurtz, the president of the Sixteen Thirty Fund, pointed to the Open Society Foundations website for more information about her donations from Soros-backed groups. The Sixteen Thirty Fund raised over $189 million in 2021, according to its latest 990 disclosure.
“At a time when the far right is better funded than ever and our rights and democratic institutions are threatened like never before, Sixteen Thirty Fund meets these threats head-on,” Kurtz said in an email. “As a tax sponsor, Sixteen Thirty Fund empowers attorneys and philanthropists to quickly and efficiently launch campaigns to address today’s toughest challenges. The administrative, legal and human support we provide is critical to allow public interest efforts to focus on improving the lives of all Americans.”
All other organizations mentioned in this story that are funded by the Open Society Policy Center have not responded to a request for comment.
Correction: Updated the headline and two references in the story to correct the year the donations were made. They were made in 2021.