Liberal politicians and pundits frequently complain about the dark-money activism of the Koch brothers, but few ever mention a leviathan left-wing dark money group which rivals the Koch network in both the scale of its activity and the size of its pocketbook.
According to an April 17 report by nonprofit watchdog Capital Research Center (CRC), a group of four nonprofits operated by Arabella Advisors LLC raised $600 million in 2017 alone. Arabella deals in “strategic philanthropy,” which largely means funneling funds to leftist causes while masking the identity of the donors, the report found.
Arabella manages a group of four nonprofits: New Venture Fund, Sixteen Thirty Fund, Windward Fund, and Hopewell Fund. These funds, in turn, operate hundreds of “front” groups designed to appear as genuine grassroots organizations. The “front” groups then invest in advertising and activism attacking the Trump administration, pro-life policies, originalist judicial nominees, and much more, according to CRC.
“The line between philanthropy and political advocacy at Arabella is blurry indeed,” Hayden Ludwig, an investigative researcher at the CRC, wrote in the executive summary of the report (pdf). “Most of the projects hosted by the four Funds and financed by Arabella’s donors advocate for controversial positions on social issues, for the expansion of government—or both.”
The four nonprofits run by Arabella operated from interlocking offices in Washington. The “strategic philanthropy” business is lucrative for Arabella. The four funds Arabella manages paid Arabella $76 million in management fees in 2017. The group’s revenue grew by 392 percent between 2013 and 2017. The network received $1.6 billion during that period.
Arabella’s clients have assets worth $100 billion, according to the company. Donors include prominent left-wing grant-makers like the Rockefeller, Packard, and Kellogg Foundations.
“It remains unclear why such large and powerful institutions seek outside philanthropic consulting, but presumably a significant part of Arabella’s appeal lies in its ability to obscure large financial transactions,” Ludwig wrote.
Arabella was founded by Eric Kessler, a former Clinton administration official. Prior to joining the Clinton administration, Kessler worked as the national field director of the League of Conservation Voters, a major environmentalist group described as a “dark money heavyweight” by the Center for Public Integrity. Kessler was also a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, an arm of the Clinton Foundation.
The scope of Arabella’s spending is startling. According to Politico, just one of Arabella’s nonprofits, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, ran more political ads in 2018 than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and almost as many as Americans for Prosperity, two of the five biggest nonprofit political advertisers that targeted House and Senate races in the first half of 2018. Politico described the Sixteen Thirty Fund as a “liberal secret-money network” and “one of the biggest players in the 2018 political landscape.”
Despite the scale of its efforts, Arabella received little attention in the media. According to CRC, 47 stories about the group appeared in the media, earning mostly passing mentions. Meanwhile, the Koch brothers network was covered 189 times by the same outlets with in-depth reporting.
“The size and scope of the Arabella network of funds demonstrate that far more ‘dark money’ exists on the left side of the political spectrum than has been previously admitted,” Ludwig wrote.
“Before left-of-center politicians and activists demand laws to increase government disclosure of donors who fund campaigns and public policy advocacy, they should consider voluntarily disclosing their own donors,” he added.
Democracy Alliance, a network of donors co-founded by billionaire financier George Soros, used Arabella’s nonprofits for at least eight projects, the CRC found.
According to a November 2017 report in Worth, Arabella was the single largest philanthropy advisory firm in the United States with a staff of 160 people. The company serviced more than half of the 50 biggest grant-making organizations in the United States.