Young America’s Foundation: Who is funding UC Berkeley’s Ben Shapiro event?

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Katherine Qiu/Staff

When UC Berkeley asked Young America’s Foundation, or YAF, and the Berkeley College Republicans to pay nearly $16,000 in security fees for Ben Shapiro’s speech, YAF lashed out immediately, stating that campus administration was taxing conservative free speech.

But public financial returns obtained by The Daily Californian show that every year, YAF spends millions of dollars funding campus events such as Shapiro’s, propped up by tens of millions in annual donations from many wealthy, powerful foundations linked to prominent conservatives such as Donald Rumsfeld, the DeVos family and Charles and David Koch.

This organization is the driving force behind many tumultuous, conservative events scheduled on campus. It was one of the many voices that pushed hardest to make Ann Coulter’s controversial appearance at UC Berkeley happen — before pulling its support two days before the event.

Right-wing author David Horowitz’s YAF-sponsored visit to UC Berkeley was canceled in April. The following month, students at the University at Buffalo booed and screamed during a YAF-funded talk given by Robert Spencer, founder of a blog called Jihad Watch and a self-proclaimed “radical Islam” expert. Shapiro himself was interrupted by protesters during a speech sponsored by YAF at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in which he denounced safe spaces.

After almost 50 years of promoting conservative values on college campuses, the organization has garnered a following from some of the country’s biggest names in conservative politics, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions among its former members.

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Shapiro gives the finger to protesters interrupting his speech at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Katie Cooney/The Badger Herald/Courtesy.

Where the money is

According to the nonprofit’s financial forms, YAF has spent about $54.3 million since 2005 on campus conference and lecture programs alone, with its most recent expense form showing costs of about $8.09 million in 2015.

Meanwhile, YAF has received about $124 million in gifts and donations since 2010. The vast majority of its total financial support relies on these donations from the public: In 2015, YAF received about $34.6 million in gifts, which encompassed nearly 98 percent of its total financial support.

Among YAF’s supporters are several prominent conservative politicians, including Vice President Mike Pence, who has spoken at several YAF conferences, and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who donated $20,000 in total from 2011-12. Editor in chief of Forbes Magazine Steve Forbes has also spoken at the organization’s retreats.

Even former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has worked with the organization. His film company, Bannon Films Industries, was paid about $259,000 in 2011 and $173,000 in 2012 to produce movies for YAF.

Several of the organization’s biggest donors, however, are not major stars or political figures. Armed with $16 million bestowed to the organization upon the death of Fullerton, California, orthodontist Robert Ruhe in 2013, YAF was able to double its student outreach programs.

And slightly more unexpected names dot the list. Pat Sajak, host of long-running game show Wheel of Fortune, and spy novelist Tom Clancy have each donated at least $1,000 to YAF in past years.

Amway billionaires Richard and Helen DeVos, in-laws of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, gave about $10 million in 1998 for the foundation to buy the Reagan Ranch, where former president Ronald Reagan spent his holidays. From 2003-12, the DeVos family donated an additional $15 million.

Most notable, perhaps, are the foundation’s ties to Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch — two of the most powerful businessmen in the world, who are rumored to have pushed anti-climate change legislation — who have directly donated about $20,000 and $50,000 to YAF, respectively.

But that’s just their direct donations. Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust are two nonprofit funds affiliated with the Koch family foundationsa common donation tactic that can often offer privacy to those who want to keep their contributions confidential.

These funds have donated about $1.12 million and $219,000 respectively to YAF since 2002.

Free speech returns

In 1974, Young America’s Foundation leaders Frank Donatelli and Ron Robinson held the first annual Conservative Political Action Conference, an event which would go on to host Reagan in 1981. With the purchase of his old vacation home in 1998, YAF now runs a museum gallery and conference center at the residence.

Back in 1969, during the height of the Free Speech Movement, then-governor Reagan called UC Berkeley “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants.”

And Thursday, an organization whose roots are based in many of this conservative icon’s ideologies will arrive at UC Berkeley, ready to challenge the campus’s free speech values anew.

Ashley Wong is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @wongalum.