Founded in 1999 as the 501(c)(3) educational counterpart of the 501(c)(4) corporation, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center Foundation provides research and other support to left-of-center groups seeking to use state-level ballot referenda to change laws and constitutions. The organization’s revenue grew substantially 2004 to 2013, from $180,116 to $1,270,552.
In 1996, the progressive People for the American Way began Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) as a multi-group project. BISC filed as the 501(c)(4) nonprofit Ballot Initiative Strategy Center Inc. in 1998, allowing unlimited political lobbying, and as the 501(c)(3) Ballot Initiative Strategy Center Foundation in 1999, allowing the organization to accept tax-deductible donations for certain purposes.
Organizationally, BISC does not strongly delineate between the activities of its main 501(c)(4) group and of its foundation. The BISC Web site, for example, touts an activist training session and “Road Ahead” conference that are actually activities of the foundation. IRS rules limit but do not prohibit the foundation’s involvement in ballot measure campaigns. (The IRS considers campaigning for ballot measures to be “lobbying the electorate” not electioneering, permitting limited 501(c)(3) participation.) but it provides support for campaigns where it can be promoted as research and education, including assistance with messaging for campaigns.
Overall, BISC’s original emphasis on countering “right-wing ballot measures” has expanded to include a “rogues gallery” list of conservative activists and resources for tracking and responding to initiatives on a state-by-state basis. The organization has also increased its activity and resources for initiating ballot measures that advance liberal policies, such as the minimum wage, LGBT issues, and abortion access.
Both sides of BISC’s operation keep their donor lists private. Known sources of donations to BISC, however, include left-leaning foundations, such as the Ford Foundation, NARAL (formerly the National Abortion Rights Action League), and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.
BISC also plays a role in shuffling money among progressive organizations. In 2014, for example, the foundation paid $131,500 to Planned Parenthood and $108,247 to progressive pollsters Lake Research Partners.
According to IRS filings, BISC Foundation does not “directly hire or compensate” any of its 11 employees, who are all technically employed by the 501(c)(4).
BISC’s current executive director is Justine Sarver, whose total compensation exceeds $175,000. In the past, Sarver worked for President Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign and transition before serving as a deputy chief of staff in the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration. Before that, she worked for the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California.
Other employees of BISC have experience working for labor unions, pro-abortion-rights groups, and other left-wing organizations.