An Augusta foundation said Tuesday that it severed ties with a white nationalist organization after discovering that the foundation had unwittingly given the group $25,000 in grants.
The Community Foundation for the Central Savannah River Area in Augusta came under fire Tuesday after the Los Angeles Times reported that the foundation had donated money between 2013 and 2014 to white supremacist Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute nonprofit.
Spencer’s organization has gained notoriety over its white separatist, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic views, which it amplified during last year’s presidential campaign. Spencer was a vocal supporter of then-candidate Donald J. Trump. But many Republican leaders have condemned Spencer’s rhetoric, and he was ousted from a recent high-profile conservative conference in Washington.
The Internal Revenue Service recently revoked the National Policy Institute’s tax-exempt status because of failure to file tax returns. But prior to that, Spencer’s group had secured donations from the 27-year-old Augusta foundation, which states its mission is to “encourage and promote philanthropy through education, responsible management of charitable contributions and the distribution of these funds.”
The Augusta National Golf Club, host of the Masters, has been a major contributor to the Augusta foundation. Through 2007, the club and tournament gave $12.5 million to the foundation to be distributed to organizations in Georgia and South Carolina.
The foundation’s donations to Spencer’s group — which is headquartered in Montana — came to light after Spencer gave the Los Angeles Times three years’ worth of unpublished tax returns.
Shell Knox Berry, president and CEO of the foundation, said in a Times interview that the grants to Spencer’s group did not come from the philanthropy’s “unrestricted fund,” which is supported in part by contributions from the Augusta National Golf Club and Masters tournament.
Rather, Berry told the Times, the money for Spencer’s group came from a “donor-advised fund” that provides anonymity to the original donor. It essentially works this way: A person or group donates money to a foundation and ear-marks the name of the group that it wants the foundation to distribute the money to.
On Tuesday, Berry said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that her foundation had not known the intent of Spencer’s National Policy Institute.
“Upon discovery of the mission and purpose of the NPI, Foundation management took immediate action to disassociate with NPI and, as of July of 2015, this donor-advised fund no longer exists at the Community Foundation for the CSRA,” Berry wrote in the statement. “The Foundation, its staff, and its Board of Directors has no association whatsoever with the National Policy Institute.”
Reached by phone, Berry declined further comment.
Neither Berry nor Spencer would say who donated the money for Spencer’s group. In an email response to an interview request from The AJC, Spencer said he intends to keep the donor’s identity a secret.
“I will never reveal the name of a donor unless I’m required to by the United States government,” Spencer wrote.
He also confirmed that the Augusta foundation had severed all ties with his National Policy Institute.
“No, we no longer have a relationship with the Augusta Community Foundation,” he wrote. “We did for a while though, even before I was involved with NPI.”
The Augusta foundation gave money in 2016 to such groups as the Aiken Center for the Arts, which received $15,000 for an Alzheimer’s/dementia therapy program; Augusta Urban Ministries, which received $15,000 for a furniture bank; and the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, which was given $9,750 for a recording studio at the school.
According to the foundation’s IRS Form 990 filings, it gave out $9.8 million in total grants in 2013, and distributed $5.8 million in total grants in 2014.
R. Lee Smith Jr., former CEO of the foundation, said its ties to Spencer’s group was news to him.
“I don’t recall that,” Smith said.
Smith also said he was unfamiliar with the National Policy Institute and had not heard of Spencer.
“We have hundreds of donors, and when donors give money we check to see if the organization they want to give to is a legitimate 501(c)3,” Smith said. “If it’s legitimate, we grant, if it’s not, we don’t.”
Berry told the Times that she didn’t want her foundation to have anything to do with Spencer.
“In no way did our organization, its board or its staff actively know or support the mission of this organization, and I don’t want it to be construed that we ever did,” Berry told the Times.
James M. Hull, vice chair of the Georgia Board of Regents, sits on the board of the Augusta foundation. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.