FWW Claims Independence from Corporate Donations; Does Not Disclose $40 Million in Secret Cash

Last week, Food & Water Watch posted a blog that caught our eye. While it is not uncommon for the group to circulate fundraising pleas, this solicitation focused squarely on the claim that because FWW doesn’t take corporate money the group is independent from the influence of donors.

As executive director Wenonah Hauter wrote:

“One of the key reasons we’re able to act so boldly is because we don’t take donations from corporations … Much in the way campaign donors can ‘buy’ undue influence over an elected official, corporations can use their donations to influence a nonprofit’s mission.”[i]

This blog post is seriously dubious – and not just because it is odd to see an organization with $15 million in annual revenues[ii] whine about funding being “always in short supply.”[iii]

FWW’s claim of independence from donor influence is completely off base for one major reason: the group doesn’t even disclose its largest donors. Indeed, more than $40 million in anonymous funds flowed to the group between 2011 and 2014.[iv] More anonymous donations likely flowed to the group in 2015 and 2016, but public filings are not yet available for those years.

Anonymous donors funnel millions of dollars to FWW through a web of foundations designed specifically to maintain donor anonymity. In 2012, a whopping 93% of FWW revenues came from undisclosed sources.[v] And more than $10 million in secret money was accepted by FWW in 2014.[vi]

Are these secret donors individuals? Are they corporations? Do they stay out of the affairs of FWW, or are they using their millions to push an agenda? It is, in fact, impossible to know.

By now, we are used to FWW ignoring important facts and spinning an alternate reality. After all, the group does it all the time about the record of the private water industry. But this claim of independence from donor influence is truly remarkable, given how FWW doesn’t disclose the sources of tens of millions in funding. Would you rather a nonprofit be funded by corporate money that is disclosed or by unknown entities that are kept secret?

Despite the rhetoric, the point is clear: FWW can’t claim independence from the influence of donors – corporate or otherwise – when the group refuses to let the public know who those donors even are in the first place.

[i] Food & Water Watch, “Why We Don’t Take Corporate Funding” 28 November 2016.
[ii] Food & Water Watch IRS 990 (2014)
[iii] Food & Water Watch, “Why We Don’t Take Corporate Funding” 28 November 2016.
[iv] Food & Water Watch IRS 990 (2011-2014); Foundation Directory Online (FDO) accessed April 15, 2016; Silicon Valley Community Foundation 2014 Grantee List; Tides Grantee List; Grants were verified by 990s of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Columbus Foundation, Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, the National Philanthropic Trust, and the Vanguard Charitable Endowment.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.
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