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Obama advocacy group collects mostly from small donors

The nonprofit Organizing for Action had come under fire as a possible way for the wealthy to exercise undue influence, but it's received few large gifts.

April 12, 2013|By Matea Gold, Washington Bureau
  • Organizing for Action leader Jim Messina. The Obama advocacy group has been mostly financed by small donors since its January launch, records show.
Organizing for Action leader Jim Messina. The Obama advocacy group has… (Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty…)

WASHINGTON — The nonprofit advocacy group that was formed to back President Obama's agenda, which was sharply criticized as a potential conduit for wealthy interests to influence the White House, has been financed overwhelmingly by thousands of small donors since its launch in late January.

Organizing for Action took in just three six-figure donations through the end of March. The biggest, $250,000, came from a son of Warren Buffett's longtime business partner.

Only about two dozen of the 770 fundraisers who collected major donations for Obama's reelection gave to the organization, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

Fundraising: A story in the April 13 A section about Organizing for Action, the nonprofit group supporting President Obama's agenda, reported that the group had decided to accept corporate donations. The organization does not accept corporate contributions.

The vast majority of the nearly $4.9 million raised came in small increments, with 109,582 donors contributing $44 on average, according to an email from Executive Director Jon Carson to supporters Friday.

"To anyone who thought we couldn't do this, these numbers send a pretty clear message," wrote Carson, emphasizing the group's grass-roots makeup. "It's never been done before, but supporters like you are doing it."

But Organizing for Action's first foray into fundraising also underscores the challenge it faces in galvanizing Obama's network of supporters to finance issue advocacy campaigns.

The group's haul represents a modest debut for an entity built on the infrastructure of Obama's behemoth reelection campaign. And it raises questions about whether Organizing for Action will raise enough to serve as a counterweight to the deep-pocketed groups on the political right.

Its first fundraising report reflected a truncated first quarter, as the group did not begin soliciting donations in earnest until February. In his email, Carson said he "couldn't be prouder" of the group's total. But he also added a plug for more donations, asking backers to "chip in $5 or more."

Earlier in the year, the group's strategists told donors they aimed to raise $50 million in 2013. But that was before the organization cut off a lucrative source of revenue when it decided to accept corporate funds amid a barrage of criticism from campaign finance reform advocates.

Although it takes unlimited contributions from individuals, the nonprofit is not yet attracting the multimillion-dollar donations that have buoyed conservative organizations.

The low participation from heavyweight donors reflects a variety of factors, Democratic fundraisers said, including burnout from the presidential campaign, as well as ambivalence about investing in the kind of outside group that Obama once decried. And some just have not focused on the effort yet.

"It's early," said Andy Spahn, a veteran Hollywood fundraiser. Spahn, who brought in more than $500,000 for Obama's reelection, has not given to Organizing for Action but said he planned to support it.

The financial details come as the nonprofit is rapidly expanding its staff and ramping up campaigns focused on gun control and immigration reform. It has moved quickly to rally support for a compromise brokered this week to toughen background checks for gun sales, working to organize more than two dozen events Friday and Saturday, many featuring victims of gun violence.

"We're digging in, we're speaking out, and we're amplifying the voices of ordinary Americans on some of the biggest issues of our time," Carson wrote in his email.

Formed as a social welfare organization under section 501(c)4 of the tax code, Organizing for Action is not required by law to disclose its contributors. But the group has pledged to voluntarily post the names of its donors who give $250 and more, as well as the amount of their contributions, on a quarterly basis.

In its first quarter, just under 40% of the group's money came from donors who contributed $250 or more. Together, those 1,428 donors contributed more than $1.9 million.

The largest sum, $250,000, came from a son of Charles Munger, Buffett's business partner at Berkshire Hathaway. Philip Munger, a philanthropist in New York, is a longtime Democratic donor. Two of his siblings, Molly and Charles Jr., are also active political spenders; last year, they pumped $80 million into separate initiative campaigns in California.

John Goldman, a philanthropist and former insurance brokerage executive in Atherton, Calif., gave the group $125,000, as did San Francisco's Nicola Miner, daughter of Oracle Corp. co-founder Bob Miner.

Missing from the list were most of Obama's major fundraisers, including DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer, Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner, and actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Among the handful of top campaign fundraisers who did give to the group was hedge fund manager Orin Kramer, who donated $75,000. Michael Kempner, chief executive of the public relations firm MWW, gave $50,000, while Dallas fundraiser Naomi Aberly contributed $10,000.

While Organizing for Action will not accept funds from for-profit corporations, it has said it will take money from labor unions. Among its donors was the National Education Assn., which made an in-kind donation of $15,466, in the form of office space in Washington.

Times researcher Maloy Moore in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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