Non-profit

Sunlight Foundation

Website:

www.Sunlightfoundation.com

Location:

WASHINGTON, DC

Tax ID:

20-3903427

DUNS Number:

85-939-1844

Tax-Exempt Status:

501(c)(3)

Budget (2016):

Revenue: $327,646
Expenses: $3,774,900
Assets: $1,829,144

Formation:

2006 in Washington, D.C.

Founders:

Michael Klein

Ellen Miller

Executive Director:

John Wonderlich

Predecessor:

Ellen Miller

The Sunlight Foundation is a government transparency advocacy group pushing for largely center-left government transparency measures.[1] While the Sunlight Foundation claims to be nonpartisan, its original national director, Zephyr Teachout, became a left-wing Democratic politician;[2] its funders include the left-of-center Bloomberg Philanthropies;[3] and its policy positions align with left-of-center priorities.[4]

The organization publishes a number of forms of government data.[5]

In 2016 due to personnel failures and a lack of mission-related urgency, the organization laid off a large portion of its staff, discontinued many of its programs,[6] and transferred ownership and operational control of nine foundation programs to other organizations.[7] A scaled back version of the organization continued to operate beyond 2016 under the direction of a new executive director.[8]

Prior to its 2016 reorganization, Sunlight Foundation offered 47 different online data tools that were used to publicize politically relevant information. Many of these projects provided data to expose what Sunlight viewed as negative business influence. For instance, the Fixed Fortunes project, agued that politically active corporations received $4.4 trillion in federal support.[9]  Other similar projects included Influence Explorer,[10] Political Ad Sleuth, Follow the Unlimited Money, and the Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker.[11]

As of 2018, the Sunlight Foundation’s limited programming mainly focuses on tracking the negative aspects of the Trump administration.[12]

In 2018, the Foundation was sharply criticized for previously employing (and later failing to reprimand) Clay Johnson as its Sunlight Labs director despite specific warnings to the foundation’s executive director that Johnson previously tried to sexually assault two women. Johnson also allegedly treated female subordinates in a harassing and inappropriate manner. Moreover, the Foundation’s failure to address Johnson’s behavior reportedly emboldened “other men whose conduct crossed the line” and created a permissive culture of sexually inappropriate harassment towards women within the organization.[13]

Background

Two left-of-center activists, Michael Klein and Ellen Miller, started the Sunlight Foundation in April 2006 on a $3.5 million startup grant from Klein.[14]  The organization operates as a think tank, an advocacy campaign in support of access to government data and information transparency, an investigative organization that creates research to support its advocacy efforts, and a grant distribution entity that gives money to other organizations to push for liberal government transparency measures.[15]

Sunlight Foundation quickly partnered with liberal and left-wing interests. From 2006-2009, Sunlight Foundation partnered with the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) to run “Congresspedia,” a repository of information on members of Congress which existed as an edited “portal” on CMD’s left-wing SourceWatch opposition research website. In 2009 the project became part of OpenCongress project.[16][17]

The Sunlight Foundation previously operated Sunlight Labs, which created and maintained technological projects or data repositories to support Sunlight Foundation’s various projects.[18] In 2016, Sunshine Labs announced that it would shut down.[19] However, ProPublica announced that it would take over five projects created by Sunlight Foundation through Sunlight Labs including; Politwoops, House Expenditure Reports, House Staff Directory, CapitolWords, and the Sunlight Congress API.[20]

Future Operational Uncertainty

In 2016, Sunlight Foundation chairman and co-founder Mike Klein announced that the organization would consider shutting down or merging with another organization by the end of the year. According to Klein, this decision was driven by the organization’s inability to find a new executive director and a lack of mission urgency.[21] [22]

Klein stated that the organization would reduce its operations, would close its Sunshine Labs contingent, would fire one-fourth of its staff, and would seek to merge many of its operations with other organizations.[23] [24]

The Atlantic writer Robinson Meyer noted that “taken together, the posts presented ominous but confusing news” about the organization’s future operational functionality.[25] Robinson noted that the foundation had not received  “a new multimillion-dollar grant for operating costs since 2012” and was instead sustained by contributions from its founder and chairman Mike Klein. [26]

Klein later issued a second statement clarifying that the organization “wasn’t actually closing” and that nothing had been decided about the future direction of the organization.[27]

In December 2016 Sunlight Foundation announced that it would in fact continue operations under a new executive director, John Wonderlich. The organization declared that during 2017 it would retain and expand its functional capacities to attack “regressive legislation and regulation” at the federal, state, and local level, turning the left-tilting watchdog organization into a liberal advocacy group.[28]

Despite these assertions and the hiring of a new executive director, the Sunlight Foundation’s revenues sharply decreased from previous levels. In 2013, the Foundation raised $8.9 million;[29] by 2016, annual revenues had decreased to just $327,000 and net assets dwindled to $1.7 million, down from $5 million the year before.[30]

Previous Activities

As of 2016, Sunlight Foundation had created and offered at least 47 different active or “retired” data tools.[31]

In September 2016, Sunlight Foundation scaled back its operations, and closed the Sunlight Labs division. Consequently many of the foundation’s programs were discontinued or were merged into and continue to be operated by other organizations. [32]

ProPublica assumed ownership of the Sunlight Foundation’s Congress and Capitol Words open data platforms and website, Politwoops project, House Staff Directory, and House Expenditure Database. [33]

Similarly, the Center for Responsive Politics assumed ownership of Sunlight Foundation’s Foreign Influence Explorer and Political Party Time programs. The Marshall Project took over Sunlight Foundation’s Hall of Justice program, and the U.S. Department of Commerce, a federal government agency, took over “Sunlight’s Python wrapper for the Census API.”[34]

Aside from these programs, the rest of Sunlight Foundation’s programs and projects have been discontinued. The information they previously published continues to be housed for public viewing through various partner organizations such as the Internet Archive.[35]

Sunlight Foundation’s discontinued previous programs could be divided into several categories. One main category of Sunlight Foundation projects tracked political influence mechanisms by identifying and publishing the financial supporters of political candidates and legislative policies. These projects included Influence Explorer,[36] Political Ad Sleuth (monitoring political ad spending), and Follow the Unlimited Money.[37]

A second category of Sunlight Foundation projects sought to monitor and expose the actions taken by members of the government. For instance, the Fixed Fortunes project, provided data arguing that corporations that spent billions of dollars for political influence received $4.4 trillion in federal support.[38] Other projects in this category included the Inner Workings of Congress project, Earmark Watch,[39] and the Poligraft project, which sought to uncover political influence in federal and state-level politics news coverage.[40]

The last category of Sunlight Foundation data sought to publish information that would hold the government and public officials accountable. Subsequently, the Foundation ran a number of similar projects to Congresspedia, including the OpenCongress, OpenStates, and OpenParliament projects, all of which make international, state and federal legislative information publicly available.[41]  Sunlight’s Hall of Justice project published a large dataset of criminal justice information hoping to identify left-of-center public policies including alternatives to incarceration, and other criminal justice “cost-savings” opportunities.[42] Many of these programs and the underlying data compiled and published through these programs continued to be operated by the various partner organizations such as ProPublica and the Center for Responsive Politics. [43]

Current Activities

Beginning in January 2018, Sunlight Foundation limited its programing and began running projects largely focused on tracking the happenings within the administration of President Donald Trump.[44] The Foundation’s current projects include: a project “Tracking Trump’s Conflicts of Interest,” a project “Tracking the Trump Administration’s Record on Transparency,” and a project now known as the Web Integrity Project, which was created to keep track of changes in website content and access to government internet-based resources during the Trump administration.[45]

Sunlight is also currently running the Open Cities Project, a Bloomberg Philanthropies-supported project on municipal governance. Open Cities uses transparency to combat what Sunlight deems to be “entrenched power structures” stemming from “legacies of racism, discrimination, wealth inequality, [and] colonialism.” This project seeks to alter political decision making, public resource allocation, and the delivery of public services in order to build what the Foundation calls “more just, inclusive power structures.”[46]

Policy and Lobbying Agenda

From 2007-2014 the Sunlight Foundation spent over $750,000 lobbying the federal government. It appears to have ceased federal lobbying as of 2017.[47]

Sunlight Foundation published an annual legislative agenda that lists the Foundation’s congressional and executive policy priorities.[48]

The Foundation generally advocated that all information and data relating to government decisions should be publicized promptly online in a searchable and permanently preserved manner.[49] The Foundation also called for the creation of a new centralized high-level executive office to oversee the online dissemination of government data.[50]

In 2014, the Foundation called for the Federal Communications Commission to create of a political advertising spending database[51] and argued that the Securities and Exchange Commission should impose regulations mandating advocacy spending disclosures for all publicly traded companies.[52] [53]

Sunlight Foundation has been a persistent critic of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which protected the First Amendment right of certain advocacy groups to comment on election-related matters.[54] [55] Conversely, the Foundation from 2011 through at least 2018 called for the enactment of the so-called DISCLOSE Act, which would mandate expanded disclosure of political financial contributors.[56] [57] The left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union opposed this legislation because it was overly broad and would infringe upon the free speech and privacy rights.[58]

Grants Distributed

The Sunlight Foundation gave over $2 million worth of to 46 organizations between 2010 and 2014[59] in order to expand the information they carry and create new sources of data.[60]

Among those grants, Sunlight Foundation gave millions of dollars to left-leaning organizations. The Foundation gave $737,300 to the Participatory Politics Foundation, $525,000 to the National Institute on Money In State Politics, $100,000 to OMB Watch, $95,000 to the Center For Public Integrity, $25,000 to the National Priorities Project, $25,000 to the Wesleyan Media Project, $12,000 to Code For America, $10,000 to Democracy Works, $10,000 to the Foundation For National Progress (publisher of Mother Jones, a social-democratic magazine), $10,000 to the Fund For The City of New York,  $10,000 to the National Wildlife Federation, and $10,000 to the New Venture Fund. [61]

Sunlight Foundation also reportedly gave grant money to the far-left Center for Media and Democracy to oversee their joint project Congresspedia.[62]

Funding

Since 2005, the Sunlight Foundation claims to have received over $60 million in contributions tens of millions of which came from left-of-center organizations. The group has received over $19 million from the Omidyar Network, $9.7 million from its left-leaning founder Michael Klein, $7.75 million from the Rockefeller Family Fund, $5 million from the John and James Knight Foundation, $2.9 million from Pew Charitable Trusts, $2.1 million from the Google Foundation, $1.26 million from the Ford Foundation, $1 million from the Hewlett Foundation, over $1 million from George Soros associated foundations (Open Society Foundations and Foundation to Promote Open Society)[63]

The group has also received tens of thousands of dollars from the MacArthur Foundation, Jennifer and Jonathan Soros, Michael Bloomberg, Mark Cuban, ProPublica, O’Reilly Media, Microsoft Corporation, the makers of “Cards Against Humanity,” and the Craigslist Charitable Fund. [64]

People

Michael R. Klein served as Sunlight’s founding chairman and provided the organization with its initial $3.5 million startup grant. Klein identifies himself “primarily a Democrat”[65] and founded the Gun Violence Archive as well as the Global Warming Mitigation Project. He also serves on the Board of Directors at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.[66]

Ellen Miller, 60, was the co-founder and first executive director at the Sunlight Foundation. Prior to Sunlight Foundation, Miller worked at the Center for Responsive Politics, was a publisher of the liberal blog TomPaine.com, and was deputy director of Campaign for America’s Future, a labor union-backed group opposed to President George Bush’s Social Security and Medicare drug plans.[67]

Zephyr Teachout was the first national director of the Sunlight Foundation.[68] Teachout subsequently was the “liberal rival” candidate to incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) in New York’s 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign.[69] Teachout was also a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in upstate New York in 2016.[70]

Sexual Misconduct Controversy

In 2018, the liberal online news service HuffPost released reporting alleging widespread sexual misconduct by a former Sunlight Foundation digital staffer and mishandling of the fallout by Sunlight Foundation senior staff. According to the report, in 2008, the Sunlight Foundation “quietly hired” liberal digital operative Clay Johnson to head its Sunshine Labs division where he “played a significant role in helping the nonprofit raise money and attract grants.”[71] Shortly thereafter Sarah Schacht, who had worked with Johnson on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, informed the Foundation’s executive director Ellen Miller that Johnson had allegedly tried to sexually assault her and another woman.[72]

Schacht at the time had started and was running ran a small non-profit that previously received a Sunlight Foundation grant and was treated favorably by Miller. However, Schact claimed there “was an abrupt change” in her relationship with Miller after she reported that Johnson’s previous attack against her. Schacht claims that after her report the Sunlight Foundation denied her organization’s request for a larger grant, and “announced plans to launch a legislative tracker that Schacht felt was in direct competition with hers.” [73] Miller denied the allegations and said that she did not remember having a conversation with Schacht about Johnson’s alleged abuses. [74]

According to multiple former Sunlight Foundation staffers, during his time at the Foundation Johnson “routinely made obscene comments toward his co-workers” that were reported to the Foundation’s leadership.[75] Nisha Thompson, a former Sunlight employee, alleged that Johnson had made obscene sexual comments to her saying, “I’m going to [f***] you in the [a**].” In another instance, Johnson reportedly “said something so inappropriate” to a young digital designer “that the team, in dramatic fashion, dragged her desk away from his and surrounded her with their own desks.” After the designer and at least one other team member complained to Sunlight’s de facto human resources representative about Johnson’s behavior, he was given a warning but was not fired. Johnson reportedly quit the next day. [76]

Multiple former Sunlight Foundation employees said that the organization’s failure to address Johnson’s behavior emboldened “other men whose conduct crossed the line” and created a permissive culture enabling harassment and sexually inappropriate comments towards women. In a 2015 exit memo, a former Sunlight Foundation employee reportedly wrote that she was very disappointed with how the foundation “handle[d] hostile work environment or sexual harassment issues.” The former employee continued, “It became clear to me that, as colleagues came to me with examples of these issues they actively faced at Sunlight, they did not feel there was anyone in the organization they could turn to for addressing the issue.” [77]

References

  1. “Sunlight Labs.” Sunlight Foundation Website. Undated. Accessed June 6, 2018. https://sunlightfoundation.com/labs/
  2. Mogulescu, Miles. “Run, Zephyr, Run — Teachout Should Challenge Hillary for the Democratic Presidential Nomination.” HuffPost. September 11, 2014. Accessed June 6, 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/miles-mogulescu/run-zephyr-runteachout-sh_b_5805234.html
  3. “Open Cities.” Sunlight Foundation Website. Undated. Accessed June 6, 2018. https://sunlightfoundation.com/policy/open-cities/
  4. “Sunlight Agenda 2011: Principles for Transparency in Government.” Sunlight Foundation Website. Archived October 21, 2011. Accessed June 6, 2018. https://web.archive.org/web/20111021090705/https://sunlightfoundation.com/policy/agenda/
  5. Birnbaum, Jeffrey. “Aiming to Shed Light on Lawmakers.” The Washington Post. April 26, 2006. Accessed June 6, 2018. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/25/AR2006042501699.html
  6. Gerstein, Josh. “Sunlight Foundation scales down, may merge.: Politico. September 20, 2016. Accessed June 6, 2018. https://www.politico.com/blogs/under-the-radar/2016/09/sunlight-foundation-shut-down-mike-klein-228422
  7. Duffy, Kat. “Sunlight Labs update: Nonprofits step up to preserve tools for transparency.” Sunlight Foundation Website. November 1, 2016. Accessed June 6, 2018. https://sunlightfoundation.com/2016/11/01/sunlight-labs-update-nonprofits-step-up-to-preserve-tools-for-transparency/
  8. Klein, Mike and Wonderlich, John. “Sunlight will endure.” Sunlight Foundation Website. December 16, 2016. Accessed June 6, 2018. https://sunlightfoundation.com/2016/12/16/sunlight-will-endure/
  9. Allison, Bill and Harkins Sarah. “Fixed Fortunes: Biggest corporate political interests spend billions, get trillions.” Sunlight Foundation Website. November 17, 2014. Accessed June 6, 2018. https://sunlightfoundation.com/2014/11/17/fixed-fortunes-biggest-corporate-political-interests-spend-billions-get-trillions/
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  33. Duffy, Kat. “Sunlight Labs update: Nonprofits step up to preserve tools for transparency.” Sunlight Foundation Website. November 1, 2016. Accessed June 6, 2018. https://sunlightfoundation.com/2016/11/01/sunlight-labs-update-nonprofits-step-up-to-preserve-tools-for-transparency/
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Nonprofit Information

  • Accounting Period: December - November
  • Tax Exemption Received: June 1, 2006

  • Available Filings

    Period Form Type Total revenue Total functional expenses Total assets (EOY) Total liabilities (EOY) Unrelated business income? Total contributions Program service revenue Investment income Comp. of current officers, directors, etc. Form 990
    2016 Dec Form 990 $327,646 $3,774,900 $1,829,144 $85,307 N $358,681 $0 $2,086 $0
    2015 Dec Form 990 $4,981,802 $4,509,670 $5,322,382 $131,290 N $4,940,631 $0 $1,925 $299,083 PDF
    2014 Dec Form 990 $4,156,761 $6,580,192 $4,876,405 $157,445 N $4,130,213 $0 $1,902 $248,926 PDF
    2013 Dec Form 990 $8,942,875 $6,971,567 $7,469,706 $327,315 N $8,925,077 $0 $1,047 $292,195 PDF
    2012 Dec Form 990 $7,912,829 $7,521,833 $5,553,145 $382,062 N $7,899,688 $0 $2,941 $284,906 PDF
    2011 Dec Form 990 $6,192,809 $6,234,025 $5,087,400 $307,313 N $6,186,357 $0 $2,132 $273,415 PDF

    Additional Filings (PDFs)

    Sunlight Foundation

    1818 N ST NW STE 300
    WASHINGTON, DC 20036-2428