A left-leaning, secret-money group doled out a whopping $410 million in 2020, aiding Democratic efforts to unseat then-President Donald Trump and win back control of the Senate.
The group, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, financed attack ads against Trump and vulnerable Republican senators and funded massive get-out-the-vote and issue advocacy campaigns amid the coronavirus pandemic, as detailed in a new tax filing obtained by POLITICO. It exploded in size during the Trump administration, going from a few tens of millions of dollars per year to raising and spending hundreds of millions.
The Sixteen Thirty Fund’s multi-million dollar grants singlehandedly powered some other organizations on the left, and it also incubated other groups, as a “fiscal sponsor,” that fought against Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, backed liberal ballot measures and policy proposals in different states and organized opposition to Republican tax and health care policies.
Its massive 2020 fundraising and spending illustrates the extent to which the left embraced the use of “dark money” to fight for its causes in recent years. After decrying big-money Republican donors over the last decade, as well as the Supreme Court rulings that flooded politics with more cash, Democrats now benefit from hundreds of millions of dollars of undisclosed donations as well.
“Altogether this is absolutely one of the largest fundraising machines I have ever come across,” said Robert Maguire, the research director for the open-government group CREW and an expert in political nonprofits. “I am really struggling to think of any other group, especially recently, that could rival it,” he added, comparing the amount of money flowing through Sixteen Thirty Fund to the Koch brothers’ network at the height of its influence earlier this decade.
While Sixteen Thirty Fund has grown to a similar scope in dollar terms, the organization rejects comparisons to the Koch network, casting both its mission and its model as different than the longtime liberal bogeymen. Sixteen Thirty Fund’s fiscal sponsorship model — in which it serves as an incubator and administrator to help get new progressive advocacy organizations off the ground — is a point of emphasis for the group, as is its backing of campaign finance reforms that would require it and other nonprofit groups to disclose donors and potentially reduce their influence on politics.
The group’s strength in 2020 was its ability to “quickly and efficiently launch new initiatives through our fiscal sponsorship model,” Sixteen Thirty Fund President Amy Kurtz wrote in a Medium post on Wednesday. “Alongside our partners and projects, we scaled up quickly (growing 175 percent from 2019), enabling progressive donors to step up like never before to help in the face of intersecting crises and imminent threats.”
Sixteen Thirty Fund’s total 2020 fundraising came to nearly $390 million — a new record for the group, and nearly three times more than the approximately $140 million it raised in 2018 and 2019.
Half of the haul came from just four donors, who gave contributions of $86.2 million, $52.7 million (in the form of stock), $45.7 million and $45 million to Sixteen Thirty Fund.
“I’m struggling to think of any group I’ve ever come across that has a single contribution that large,” said Maguire, who noted that it could be from an individual or from another nonprofit or other group.
Tech billionaire Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, disclosed earlier this year that they were responsible for the $45 million gift, which went to Civic Action Fund, a fiscally sponsored project of the Sixteen Thirty Fund.
Another four donors gave between $10 million and $20 million, and 27 more gave between $1 million and $5.3 million.
As a nonprofit, Sixteen Thirty Fund is not required to disclose its donors, even though it spends significant sums on politics. But in addition to Omidyar’s self-disclosure, the New York Times revealed earlier this year that Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss’ nonprofits gave more than $135 million to the Sixteen Thirty Fund in recent years, which was earmarked for non-electoral purposes. A person with Sixteen Thirty Fund, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that contributions from organizations funded by Wyss did not increase in 2020.
The Open Society Foundations, founded by liberal mega-donor George Soros, also lists nearly $17 million in 2020 grants to the Sixteen Thirty Fund on its website.
Sixteen Thirty Fund’s single biggest outlay in 2020 — $129 million — went to America Votes, the liberal umbrella group that works on voter registration and turnout and collaborates with other political groups across the left.
The massive windfall from Sixteen Thirty Fund in 2020 was, by itself, more than twice as much as America Votes raised the previous year. Like Sixteen Thirty Fund, and with its help, America Votes expanded dramatically in the last few years, raising approximately $13 million in its fiscal years ending in June 2017 and 2018 before bringing in $64 million the next year, according to its most recent tax documents.
Kurtz wrote in her Medium post that the grants to America Votes “helped progressives across the country pivot to provide new and safe opportunities for voting during a deadly pandemic” by supporting the group’s “national efforts to expand access to vote by mail and increase voter turnout in communities of color and among traditionally disenfranchised people.”
Sixteen Thirty Fund reported giving nearly $164 million to super PACs and other groups expressly for political purposes, as well as spending more than $3 million itself directly on political activity — totaling 41 percent of its spending, under the 49 percent cap on political spending by nonprofits. Much of the money that went to America Votes is included in Sixteen Thirty Fund's total political spending, but the nonprofit also made large contributions to super PACs supporting now-President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats in 2020, including $5.9 million to Change Now, $15.2 million to Future Forward USA PAC, $4.5 million to Priorities USA Action and $7.7 million to Victory 2020.
The group directed $10 million to an anti-Trump group, Defending Democracy Together, run by Republican and former Republican operatives and commentators.
It also supported a network of other nonprofits that aired issue ads bashing vulnerable Senate Republicans throughout 2019 and 2020. The donations included $7 million to Piedmont Rising, which operated in North Carolina, $2.5 million to Advancing AZ in Arizona, $1.9 million to Maine Momentum, $1.6 million to Rocky Mountain Values in Colorado and $1.2 million to Iowa Forward.
And Sixteen Thirty Fund poured tens of millions of dollars into groups backing progressive ballot measures in numerous states. The funds included $19.4 million in contributions to the North Fund, which in addition to directing money to other liberal organizations backed ballot measures on issues like paid leave in Colorado and marijuana legalization in Montana. Sixteen Thirty Fund also directed another $2.6 million to Colorado Families First, the campaign for the paid leave ballot measure in the state.
Yet more money flowed directly through the fiscally sponsored programs housed within Sixteen Thirty Fund. Demand Justice, one of the most high-profile, has spun off into its own distinct organization, Kurtz wrote in her Medium post. But others, like Paid Leave for All Action, have been actively campaigning for policy changes and conducting issue advocacy. Sixteen Thirty Fund’s tax filing does not break out how much each fiscally sponsored group spent.