Donors Increasingly Blending Philanthropic and Political Giving

As America's donor class becomes ever wealthier, major donors, conservative and liberal, are pairing their philanthropic giving with campaign contributions to advance their favorite causes, The Nation reports.

One such donor, Art Pope, a prominent conservative figure in North Carolina, gave millions in campaign contributions to conservative supporters of the state's so-called "bathroom bill" while supporting the North Carolina Family Policy Council, a leading nonprofit proponent of the legislation, with donations from the John William Pope Foundation, which he chairs. And in Minnesota, Alida Messinger, a Rockefeller heiress, has given millions of dollars to nonprofits working to advance environmental and energy issues, protect women's reproductive rights, and mobilize low-income voters — as well as to state Democratic committees, PACs, and dozens of candidates, helping to bring about a Democratic takeover of state government and the passage of progressive legislation in 2013 and 2014.

At the national level, "hybrid" donors who have been active in the 2016 presidential election include Michael Bloomberg, Charles and David H. Koch, Robert Mercer, Herbert Sandler, George Soros, and Tom Steyer — all of whom are engaged in large-scale giving to promote their agendas through both political and philanthropic channels. Mercer, who made his fortune in hedge funds, is perhaps the most notable newcomer, The Nation reports, financing Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-TX) presidential bid to the tune of over $13 million and pumping $2 million into John Bolton's Super PAC to promote hawkish national security ideas, while his Mercer Family Foundation awarded grants totaling $18.3 million in 2014 to a variety of conservative and libertarian groups, including the Federalist Society, the Media Research Center, and the Government Accountability Institute.

Indeed, many 501(c)(3)s are creating 501(c)(4) offshoots in an effort to provide politically active donors with a "one-stop" solution. In such an arrangement, the nonprofit, supported by tax-deductible dollars, works to set the overall terms of the debate through its policy and advocacy work, with the 501(c)(4) working to sway public officials when an issue reaches a political inflection point.

And the trend is not just confined to older donors. Former Facebook president and Napster co-founder Sean Parker, a millennial, has emerged as a major contributor to political campaigns in the California and is a top backer of a ballot initiative in to legalize marijuana. Meanwhile, Parker's former boss, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, and Zuckerberg's wife, Priscilla Chan, established a limited liability corporation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, as their primary philanthropic vehicle —  in part because they wanted to be able to support politicians who share their views. "We must participate in policy and advocacy to shape debates," they wrote in a letter announcing the formation of their LLC. "Many institutions are unwilling to do this, but progress must be supported by movements to be sustainable."