In a trendy co-working space in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle—where people wear Chucks and fuss about fancy coffee—lies the progressive movement’s empire of political cash. Over the past half decade, Democrats have quietly pulled ahead of Republicans in so-called dark-money spending, funneling hundreds of millions from anonymous donors into campaigns around the country.
The groups that spend money this way tend to have innocuous-sounding names and promiscuously spawn mini-organizations that take up particular state and local causes. The North Fund, for example, spent nearly $5 million trying to legalize marijuana in Montana last year. The Sixteen Thirty Fund—the indisputable heavyweight of Democratic dark money—was the second-largest super-PAC donor in 2020, according to the investigative organization OpenSecrets, giving roughly $61 million of effectively untraceable money to progressive causes. The organization that connects many of these groups—what a critic might call the mothership—is called Arabella Advisors.
Arabella hates this narrative. The organization’s CEO, Sampriti Ganguli, insisted to me that she runs a relatively small business-services organization that does HR, legal compliance, accounting, etc., for clients such as the Sixteen Thirty Fund. Ganguli comes from a consultant background, and she talks like it: Arabella’s mission is to make philanthropy more efficient, effective, and equitable, she told me.
But Arabella, like the Sixteen Thirty Fund, undeniably benefited from the rush of panicked political giving on the left during the Trump years. As the Sixteen Thirty Fund’s revenue exploded, it spent more money on Arabella’s services—a tenfold increase from 2014 to 2019. And Arabella, as a mission-driven, progressive organization, is caught in a major tension on the left: How can progressive groups justify using billionaires’ money to influence American politics and civic life while earnestly advocating for a wealth tax or political-spending reforms?
“I think a lot about the role billionaires have to play—maybe they’re part of the problem and part of the solution,” Ganguli told me. The pandemic has created extraordinary financial need in the United States, but it’s also generated extraordinary stock-market returns for America’s wealthiest people. Ganguli sees this as an opportunity; she wants Arabella to be the bridge between the donors who want to help and the people who need it. She worries that politicizing Arabella’s work will diminish its ability to improve the field of philanthropy; charitable giving is one of the last shared traditions Americans still believe in. If we lost that shared trust, she said, society would be far worse off. No matter how much she protests, though, perhaps some of the blame lies at her feet.
Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Emma Green: There’s a major national debate over whether our country should have stronger transparency laws in place for political spending. Would you support a law requiring the disclosure of the names of your donors involved in political giving?
Sampriti Ganguli: Arabella is a business. We don’t engage in any kind of legislative activity. Should the laws change, we will certainly be in compliance with all of them.
I’ll step back, though. Privacy is a core part of philanthropy. I sometimes see money in politics and donor privacy getting conflated. Donor privacy is rooted in the historical legacy of philanthropy in this country, which is based on religious giving. As different communities of faith came to the United States, they supported their local communities. People who came from better means gave back. There was a principle behind anonymity—not to disadvantage those with less means.
Green: I saw in your 2020 impact report that you frequently work on “civic engagement” projects—you gave something like 530 grants to 290 grantees on issues like “voter protection” and efforts to “defend democracy.” You might call that work political, with a little p. Even if you’re not always working with a rich guy giving a lot of money to Joe Schmo running for Congress, donors can still inflect the way we think about civic engagement and public life. People who have a lot of money can still have a big footprint.
Do you think your clients and donors should have to put their names on those efforts?
Ganguli: I have an appreciation for why donors need to be able to choose whether they disclose that information or not. And I think it’s a low likelihood that the laws will actually change in this area. Our laws protect individuals and their privacy around causes they believe in.
Green: You say you think donors should have the right to choose. Just to zoom out, what we’re talking about is people with a lot of money, who want to channel that money into changing the way our society is structured. Why should people with a lot of money be able to do this anonymously?
Ganguli: There are a lot of actors involved in changing American civic life. I just have to be honest with you: You’re zooming in on such a small part of what Arabella Advisors does. I’m struggling with your question.
Green: Yeah, but: 530 grants. That’s not nothing.
Ganguli: But that’s only a part of our work. We do strategy. For donors, we help them think about how to get food to communities, how to get protective equipment to frontline workers in the midst of a pandemic. We help donors focus on race and racial justice. Our job is to make sure we are complying with all of the laws as they stand. We are a social and mission-driven organization, to be sure. But our job is not to legislate how the world should be. Other progressive projects focus on that.
Green: But you guys sit in that progressive universe. Elizabeth Warren is out here saying, “Let’s institute a wealth tax! Let’s make it harder for billionaires to exist!” But some of your clients must be billionaires.
How do you hold those ideas in your head at the same time? You spend your days serving the interests and needs of billionaires. Also, theoretically, you’re part of a progressive world that thinks that’s wrong and unjust.
Ganguli: If you know anything about the progressive movement, there are lots of different elements to it. They are not always aligned. In fact, they often stand in tension with one another. The core of our business is: How do we get grants to communities as fast as we possibly can in the moments that matter?
Green: In your recent impact report, you talked about the use of fiscal sponsorships as a way to make philanthropy more effective. What appeals to you about that model?
Ganguli: Fiscal sponsorships help to solve problems when donors want to work together. Donors actually cannot give money to one another. As a result, they need fiscal sponsors—intermediaries—to collaborate on major initiatives.
Second—and I’ll generate some angst if I say this—is a challenge in the nonprofit sector. When you set up a standalone nonprofit, chances are that nonprofit will exist in perpetuity. There’s a little bit of a perverse incentive to keep the venture going. Fiscal sponsors can be a home for time-bound projects.
The third [draw] is shared infrastructure. Also: One of the challenges donors face is when their name is public, they get a lot of calls from fundraisers. When an individual is new to giving, or they don’t necessarily want to make their mark, they may want to be private about their contribution.
Finally, it is hard for very large foundations to give money to grassroots organizations. Sometimes a large foundation will need three years of audited financials in order to make their governance requirements. When foundations work via an intermediary, those intermediaries can more effectively get money to, say, a changemaker at a school in rural Mississippi.
Green: Another version of what you’re describing is a group like Demand Justice, which, at least until recently, was fiscally sponsored by the Sixteen Thirty Fund. This model allows groups to have big roles in electoral politics without disclosing information about their board members, their revenue, how they’re distributing grants, etc.
I wonder if you think it is okay for groups like this to be able to operate under the cover of darkness.
Ganguli: That is what the law allows for. When the laws change, we will make sure we are perfectly compliant with them. Projects and donors have every opportunity to share publicly what they do and don’t do. It’s not incumbent on Arabella Advisors to opine on what that should be.
Green: What are the internal splits? What are the things that people at Arabella wrestle over?
Ganguli: People wrestle with the original sin of philanthropy in a capitalist society that has done harm to communities. We grapple a lot with what issues are overfunded versus underfunded. Are there dollars that could go to a different set of causes?
Anonymity is a big one. Why do certain causes, like reducing gun violence and promoting women’s right to choose their own reproductive justice and health—why do those projects receive such vocal threats? Does anonymity allow those actors to move with greater freedom?
Green: When you wake up in the morning, knowing you are in some way playing into an imperfect system and an imperfect history, do you feel like your conscience is clean?
Ganguli: Oh my gosh, I feel great. For the last 18 months, I have never been more inspired. We’ve sent money to independent restaurant workers who were left out of the original set of PPP loans. We got personal protective equipment to frontline workers in New York in March and April of last year. I feel really, really proud of having some part in that.
Do I think the system is perfect? Absolutely not. But I feel great and inspired and energized by what we do.
Green: It sounds like you feel like you’re doing good work, as best as you can, within a flawed system. But there are actors within our broken, historically unjust system who labor in the opposite direction of many of your aims.
The Koch network is perhaps the biggest example. I wonder: When you look out across the horizon and you see your Dark Spider-Man, do you think, Okay, well, that’s the system we have, and as long as they’re legally compliant, fair game?
Ganguli: There definitely are organizations that work in opposition to the Sixteen Thirty Fund and other clients. I think the rules have to be the same for all sets of actors and agents.
Green: But the rules are the same, right? The Koch brothers live in America; they’re operating in the American tax system. Assuming they try as hard as you do to comply with the laws as they stand, they are able to put lots of money and energy into what you probably see as making America a worse country.
Are you okay with that?
Ganguli: I love that you’re pushing me on my beliefs and values. I have a job to do, just like everybody else has a job to do. You’re giving me more credit for systems-level thinking than I, candidly, spend. Let me just make sure I understand your question. Is it fair that the Koch brothers get to do what they do?
Green: Right. You both take advantage of similar legal structures, federal regulations, and the ability to put lots of money toward politics, little p. They just work on the opposite side, for opposite causes.
Do you feel good that you’re the left’s equivalent of the Koch brothers?
Green: You do! Tell me why.
Ganguli: Because we believe in many of those causes.
Green: So you think it’s good to take advantage of the existing legal structures because ultimately you’re going to do good?
Ganguli: We will make sure we are compliant with all of the laws as they are. And should they change, we will make sure we are compliant.
Green: Okay. You guys have a narrative around you, which associates you with dark-money spending in America. I want to give you a clean opportunity to explain why you think that narrative is wrong.
Ganguli: I’m super surprised at the attention that Arabella Advisors gets. We’re a pretty small professional-services business. We make sure things get done on time, that the checks go where they need to go. We help donors figure out how to maximize their effectiveness. I struggle to fully diagnose the narrative.
What I will say is, on the work of the Sixteen Thirty Fund in particular, the narrative is often spun by a set of actors and agents who benefit equally, if not more, from the same legal structure. One of the reasons we don’t engage in this narrative is that it’s not at all the bulk of what Arabella Advisors does. Whenever organizations are looking to profile the work of philanthropy, we’re super excited to talk about that. But it has been my observation that the slog of day-to-day change doesn’t warrant headlines in a 24/7 media cycle.
Green: Look, I take your point. But just to give you insight into the reporter brain: In 2020, the Sixteen Thirty Fund was the second-largest giver to super PACs in the entire country. The first was One Nation, a right-wing organization. The Sixteen Thirty Fund gave $61 million to super PACs. They’ve scaled up at a speed that is unprecedented. Your organization’s structure has even prompted people on the right to say, “Hey, I love what you’re doing. I’m going to reorganize in order to mirror you.”
I don’t think it’s that reporters don’t have a taste for covering long, slow, hard work. This political spending is newsworthy. And Arabella shares an address, resources, legal services, HR services, and all kinds of other things with the Sixteen Thirty Fund.
Ganguli: I don’t dispute your wanting to ask the question. I just worry that you’re asking the question to the wrong person.