Alpharetta home to massive, mysterious charity

The office building that is home to the National Christian foundation is located on Rainwater Dr, in Alpharetta. (STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)
The office building that is home to the National Christian foundation is located on Rainwater Dr, in Alpharetta. (STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

National Christian Foundation gives billions away but keeps donors anonymous

A leafy office park near downtown Alpharetta is home to one of the most influential charities you’ve never heard of, although it’s provided billions of dollars for evangelical, conservative and civic causes.

The nonprofit operates largely under the radar, spending relatively tiny amounts on fund-raising. Instead, it relies on the wealthy to contribute money, stock, real estate, or other assets that are then liquidated with proceeds donated to other charities.

So much has poured in that The National Christian Foundation ranked as the country’s eighth-largest charity between 1991 and 2017, just behind the Salvation Army, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Since its inception in 1982, the organization says it’s sprinkled nearly $12 billion across some 63,000 charities.

Donors choose which organizations receive the nonprofit’s grants —and can do so in anonymity if they so choose. Names of those givers never have to be disclosed, not to the IRS, the public, or even the charities that ultimately receive their grants.

Supporters say such donor-advised funds incentivize charitable giving, streamlining the donation process and enabling individuals to give without fear or public backlash or being inundated with requests for more money.

But critics see NCF and other donor-advised funds as a shadowy way for the rich to anonymously flood the political system with money – albeit indirectly – and receive immediate tax breaks for gifts that can sit indefinitely, sometimes for years, before they’re parceled out to charities.

NCF “is probably the single biggest source of money fueling the pro-life and anti-LGBT movements over the past 15 years,” the publication Inside Philanthropy wrote in 2017.

By law, donor-advised funds can’t donate to individual candidates, political campaigns or parties. However, they can give to advocacy groups and think tanks, and many of NCF’s grants have gone to nonprofits that are immensely influential on the right, shaping some of the policies embraced by the Trump administration.

In 2018, the foundation gave $336,000 to the Federalist Society, the organization that’s advised Trump on judicial nominees and helped inform all three of Trump’s Supreme Court picks, as well as nearly $190,000 to Judicial Watch, a conservative group that filed freedom of information requests surrounding the Steele dossier that alleged ties between Russia and then-candidate Trump in 2016.

NCF has been a major source of funding to crisis pregnancy centers that seek to steer women away from abortions, including facilities in Athens, Augusta and Albany.

It’s donated generously to advocacy organizations that some classify as “hate groups” for their views on gay rights, Islam and immigrants. One of NCF’s largest donations in 2018, nearly $10 million, went to Alliance Defending Freedom. The Southern Poverty Law Center says it’s a legal advocacy group that has supported the recriminalization of sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ adults and defended state-sanctioned sterilization of transgender people abroad. Supporters see the Alliance as a vital frontline defender of religious freedom, and the group has successfully argued at the Supreme Court in favor of rolling back of LGBTQ protections and contraceptive access.

But NCF grants also have supported churches, universities, arts groups and museums, including the Atlanta Ballet, Georgia Tech and the Atlanta History Center.

Growing an alternative

The National Christian Foundation isn’t the first or only organization to specialize in religious giving or donor-advised funds. The latter was pioneered roughly a century ago by community foundations, which gave donors authority to parcel out their money to local causes, said Dr. Una Osili, a professor at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

But NCF carved a niche for itself among well-off churchgoers for its broader scope and evangelical-focused mission. Clients can gift money to organizations around the country, not just in their own backyards. And the foundation is guided by an 11-point statement of faith, including that the Bible is “the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”

The organization traces its roots back to the early 1980s, when a client of Atlanta tax attorney Terry Parker was looking to make a single charitable donation for tax purposes but later distribute the money to multiple Christian charities.

Parker wrote the Internal Revenue Service to ensure his business plan was legal. He wanted to keep his donors involved with steering grant money even after they donated assets and was given the green light after nearly a year of back-and-forth with the agency, an NCF spokesman said. Parker then approached evangelical author and radio personality Larry Burkett and financial planner Ron Blue, about launching the foundation.

NCF now employs roughly 180 people at its metro Atlanta headquarters and close to 100 others at its 30 regional offices around the country. In 2019, the organization attracted nearly $1.5 billion in donations and distributed more than $1.2 billion in grants to outside charities — a far higher payout rate than most other donor-advised funds.

Thousands of recipients

NCF declined to make foundation leadership available for an interview, nor would it discuss its more than 25,000 donors, other than to say that they are “people who have a strong desire to mobilize the resources God has entrusted to them for the causes they love.”

A spokesman did confirm the nonprofit previously worked with the Greens, the family behind the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby that successfully challenged the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate at the Supreme Court — where it was represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Most of the grants NCF gives are small, as little as $100 to a few thousand dollars to outside charities. Many recipients are non-religious and civic groups, including the Georgia Aquarium (which was given $100,000 in 2018) and the Atlanta Botanical Garden ($5,000).

Many of NCF’s largest donations, however, are to religious causes.

Campus Crusade for Christ received more than $14.7 million from NCF in 2018, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association more than $2.7 million. In Washington, the foundation was a “primary” donor to the $500 million Museum of the Bible, according to The Washington Post.

Local right-leaning think tanks also received NCF grants. The foundation gave $340,000 to the Georgia Center for Opportunity, which focuses on workforce development issues, in 2018, as well as $56,000 to the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

As for its grants to organizations labeled “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center —the investigative news site Sludge last year tallied $56.1 million given to 23 nonprofits with “anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant” views between 2015 and 2017 — an NCF spokesman said the foundation “does not rely on third-party designations to determine grant eligibility.”

“All grants the organization gives are initiated by donor recommendations,” the spokesperson said in a written statement to the AJC. “NCF carefully reviews and assesses every grant recommendation to confirm both the charity’s legal status as a tax-exempt organization and the alignment of its purpose and activities with our beliefs and values.”

Many of those organizations flagged by Sludge were not listed as grant recipients in NCF’s 2018 tax documents. But in addition to the Alliance Defending Freedom, NCF gave $3 million in 2018 to the Family Research Council, which promotes family values in Washington but SPLC says specializes in “defaming LGBTQ people,” as well as $232,000 to the American Family Association, which has organized boycotts against companies with LGBTQ-friendly policies.

‘Playground for big donors’

Donor-advised funds like NCF have been under increased scrutiny from good government groups and some tax scholars for shielding donor identities and not disclosing the specific initiatives they’re funding at other charities.

“It would seem unethical that you can anonymously hide yourself and not be accountable to the public or your community,” said Aunna Dennis, executive director of the Georgia chapter of Common Cause, who added that charitable giving shouldn’t be “a playground for big donors to basically push their issues” without transparency.

Osili, of Indiana University, said donor-advised funds have taken off in part because of the ease and convenience associated with them. Donors can select which charities they’d like to donate to on their smartphone or with the click of a mouse, and many funds now have low or no minimum account balances — NCF’s is zero — making them accessible to not just the wealthy.

But the jury’s out on their effectiveness.

Osili said “it’s hard to see whether it’s boosted giving or not,” but she pointed out that during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been more grant-making from such funds. (NCF said its donors granted more than $196 million to charities in March and April at the onset of the pandemic, a 31% increase over the same period last year.)

There’s been discussion of regulating donor-advised funds in some states to increase transparency. But some fear it could have a chilling effect on charitable donations, especially in small communities where donors could be singled out for the causes to which they’re giving, said Osilil.

SOME GROUPS THE NCF GRANTED MONEY TO IN 2018

Donor-advised funds like the National Christian Foundation are the fastest-growing form of charitable giving, according to the National Philanthropic Trust. The group estimates that such funds held a combined $72 billion in charitable assets in 2018, a nearly 23% increase from the year before.

In 2017, the Chronicle of Philanthropy tallied the 400 charities that raised the most money from private sources between 1991 and 2017. Half of the top 10 were donor-advised funds. NCF was 8th, while philanthropy funds at Fidelity and Goldman Sachs respectively placed 1st and 3rd.

NCF has given grant money to thousands of charities since it was launched in 1982. Here are some state and local causes it gave to in 2018, according to the foundation’s tax forms (figures are rounded):

CIVIC

• Georgia Court Appointed Special Advocates - $25,000

• Atlanta Community Food Bank - $44,000

• Atlanta Dream Center - $177,000

RELIGIOUS

• Georgia Baptist Children’s Homes and Family Ministries - $18,000

• Peachtree City’s Africa Inland Mission - $222,000

• Lawrenceville’s 12Stone Church - $1.3 million

EDUCATIONAL

• Georgia Tech Athletic Association - $1.4 million

• Atlanta International School - $5,000

• University of Georgia Foundation - $17,000

CRISIS PREGNANCY CENTERS

• Alpha Pregnancy Center (Albany) - $472,000

• Atlanta Pregnancy Resource Center (Tucker) - $11,000

• Choices Pregnancy Care Center (Gainesville) - $10,000

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