CREW is funded by a long list of left-wing organizations and foundations. They include liberal foundations, labor unions, and interest groups looking for support from CREW.
CREW’s principal source of funding is ideologically liberal/left-wing foundations. In 2013 (the most recent year for which complete tax records are available), these groups paid CREW grants equal to 55% of its total reported contribution/grant revenue.
Among the foundations that have made significant contributions to CREW in recent years:
The foundation funders of CREW, many of which are members of or otherwise linked with the Democracy Alliance group of liberal megadonors, clearly demonstrate the partisan and ideological alignment of the organization. Among the groups in the Democracy Alliance’s funding orbit is one of CREW’s stablemates in the David Brock liberal group empire, Media Matters for America.
CREW has been rumored previously to be involved with both the Democracy Alliance and the similar, union- and environmentalist-convened Democracy Initiative.
Oddly for a group that is outraged whenever a conservative or Republican group obtains confidential funding, CREW reportedly has solicited or assisted liberal and Democratic groups doing just that. Politico reported on a 2010 Democracy Alliance conference that CREW’s Melanie Sloan attended: One attendee told the reporter, “The agreement is that everything that goes on here is confidential.” In attendance were many Democratic donors and left-leaning activists. CREW was also reportedly one of the organizations formally represented at the conference: Sloan refused to comment on her participation.
CREW receives notable direct support from labor organizations. Under labor law, unions may direct member dues to lobbying and advocacy groups like CREW. Analyses indicate that liberal organizations receive nearly all of unions’ political money.
Since CREW’s founding, unions have contributed $245,000 to its efforts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, CREW has strongly attacked unions’ foes in politics. CREW’s “Worst Governors” report, written in 2013, features 16 Republicans of its 18 politicians attacked, with the only two Democrats being term-limited Steve Beshear of Kentucky and Andrew Cuomo of New York, who was challenged in the 2014 Democratic primaries for insufficient loyalty to the public-employee union cause.
CREW insists that its donors do not play a role in determining its agenda. But the organization has attacked politicians and organizations that are foes of its contributors—in at least one case taking a position opposed to the Obama Administration and against most liberals.
For-Profit Colleges: An analysis of tax filings from the Aurora Foundation—the foundation affiliated with late Democracy Alliance member and University of Phoenix CEO John Sperling and his family—strongly suggests that CREW was part of an intricate, hidden web of dark-money advocacy funded by Sperling and coordinated by a Democratic political consultancy in Sacramento as the Obama Administration and Democrats in Congress prepared to tighten regulations on for-profit colleges.
In 2010 and 2011, tax records filed by the “Civic Duty Coalition,” a 501(c) group run by staffers with the political consulting firm Jim Gonzalez and Associates, showed that the group paid $150,000 to CREW. In turn, Civic Duty Coalition received 95% of its total contribution and grant revenue over the 2007-2012 period from Sperling’s Aurora Foundation—strongly suggesting that Civic Duty Coalition functioned as a dark money pass-through entity to obscure Sperling-tied funding of CREW.
In apparent return for that funding, CREW publicly complained that a financial trader with bets against the for-profit college industry had been allowed to testify before Congress, drafted op-eds opposing the Obama Administration’s new regulations, and filed a complaint against the Department of Education.
This drew scrutiny from some liberals, especially the American Prospect’s Mike Elk. An abortive attempt by then-CREW executive director Melanie Sloan to join a public affairs firm run by longtime Clinton consigliere and for-profit college lobbyist Lanny Davis raised even more questions.
Herbalife: After Melanie Sloan left CREW to form a secretive public relations firm (Triumph Strategy), The New York Times revealed that Sloan and CREW were involved in an interconnected advocacy network on behalf of the embattled nutritional supplement company Herbalife, which was facing an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
CREW reached out to Herbalife to contribute $40,000 to the group, which was reportedly used to investigate William Ackman, a Wall Street trader who called Herbalife’s business practices into question. While Sloan began going after Ackman while still at CREW, the Times reported that Herbalife had retained her P.R. firm Triumph Strategies as a client. Sloan “made the donation, her colleagues said, and billed Herbalife,” according to the Times. Sloan’s P.R. firm brags that it can “enlist our extensive network of allies” on its website—these allies presumably include CREW.
CREW kept the $40,000 from Herbalife until the Times sought comment from the organization. The organization said it would return the money after the Times contacted CREW for comment on its report.
CREW demands that nonprofit groups disclose the sources of their funding, but it hasn’t provided a complete list of its own donors.
Following the 2010 elections, CREW posted a blog entry on its website criticizing Karl Rove’s fundraising group, American Crossroads, for refusing to release a list of its donors. CREW opined, “This is not a partisan issue—both left and right-leaning groups are reaping the benefits of non-disclosure under the 501(c)4 status and it’s time this nonsense comes to an end.” But CREW itself has reaped the benefits of non-disclosure under its own 501(c)3 status.
CREW has previously criticized other groups for not disclosing their donors. CREW went after public relations and research firm Berman and Company (a co-author of this report) for allegedly acting at the behest of its funders. (This is, in hindsight, an ironic charge for a group that would later run a campaign against its ideological interests in the apparent interests of its funders and see its executive director join a public affairs firm that gives little public information about its activities.) And CREW filed a complaint with the IRS against the Center for Consumer Freedom, requesting that CCF disclose its donor list. According to the complaint, “We believe that a thorough investigation of the sources of [The Center for Consumer Freedom’s] revenue will disclose the nearly exclusive funding by industry forces for whom CCF does their bidding.” (The IRS’s subsequent audit failed to find any substantive issues with CCF’s tax-exempt status.)
CREW has never released an itemized list of its donors. CREW officials, including Melanie Sloan, have admitted that certain groups, such as the Open Society Institute, fund CREW. Researchers have unearthed other CREW donors by cross-referencing tax filings and other documents from foundations and organizations. But much of CREW’s funding remains undisclosed.