Companies Pump Millions into Political Nonprofits

But the $185 million number is probably a big understatement

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Eric Thayer / Reuters

A woman marches in the Charlotte Labor Day Parade in Charlotte, North Carolina September 3, 2012.

One-third of the 300 biggest companies in the United States gave at least $185 million to politically active nonprofit organizations in 2012, according to a new report, underscoring how the often opaque groups have markedly stepped up their political activity in recent years.

The report released Thursday by the Center for Public Integrity is just the latest indication of how corporations have poured money into nonprofit groups that play in political and policy fights since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. Just how much money the biggest businesses in America gave to political nonprofits is unclear—the available data comes from the companies that voluntarily disclosed their contributions. Corporations aren’t allowed to contribute to political campaigns or committees, but so-called social welfare groups, nonprofits that are ostensibly geared toward educating the public on policy issues, can take corporate cash without disclosure and are increasingly airing ads that resemble campaign commercials.

“In no way does it represent the entire picture,” said Michael Beckel, the lead reporter on the project. “For two-thirds of the largest 300 public companies in America we have no information. And we can’t count what we can’t see.”

Among the approximately 100 companies that did disclose some information, many used broad ranges, like “at least $50,000” or “at least $100,000,” he said.

“This $185 million represents a conservative baseline,” he said. “The actual level of giving was likely much, much more.”

Among those companies that did disclose information, the biggest donors were the energy company Exelon Corp., the health insurance company WellPoint Inc., and the tech giant Microsoft. About 84% of the $185 million went to politically active trade organizations, like the Chamber of Commerce, 13% went to politically active social welfare nonprofits, and 3% to other groups, like the Congressional Black Caucus and the Heritage Foundation.