The Discovery Institute Is A Con-Profit Scam

Yesterday, David Klinghoffer, a fellow at the creationist “think tank” the Discovery Institute and the author of the absurdly titled book How Would God Vote?: Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative, forcefully demonstrated the ways in which he and the Discovery Institute engage in blatant intellectual dishonesty. Shortly after Zack Kopplin routed Klinghoffer’s colleague Casey Luskin on a national radio show, Klinghoffer took to the Discovery Institute’s website and published an article titled “Zack Kopplin Thinks Louisianans Are Stupid,” an argument he based, entirely, by lifting and grossly mischaracterizing a single sentence from a story Zack told about his experience as a thirteen-year-old kid at summer camp in Connecticut.

For those familiar with the tactics of the Discovery Institute, it’s probably unsurprising that Klinghoffer “quote-mined” from Zack’s speech in order to advance a lie. After all, manipulating other people’s words is one of the Discovery Institute’s hallmarks. Still, this seemed different: Klinghoffer wasn’t simply cherry-picking a couple of sentences from an academic journal to criticize evolution; he was distorting a personal story about being a thirteen-year-old at summer camp to level a spurious and, in my opinion, defamatory personal attack, all in attempt to discredit Zack’s character, not his arguments. And of course, it is laughable and pathetic and obviously mean-spirited. The real issue, however, is not David Klinghoffer’s dishonesty; it’s that David Klinghoffer published his attack under the masthead of a tax-exempt, tax-deductible organization.

And it got me thinking: What, exactly, is the Discovery Institute? Why are they tax-exempt? Why does the United States allow them to operate as a charitable organization? And when people donate to the Discovery Institute, what, exactly, are they getting in return, aside from a tax deduction?

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After pouring over and analyzing the Discovery Institute’s most recent 990 returns and exhaustively researching their programmatic work, I think it’s abundantly obvious: The Discovery Institute is a con-profit scam.

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Over the last several years, the Discovery Institute has raised well over $20 million, donations that are almost entirely eaten up in salaries and administrative costs. On average, since 2008, the Discovery Institute has spent less than 13% of its annual revenue on program activity and phony “grants.” Put another way, the Discovery Institute spends nearly 90% of the tax-deductible donations it receives every year on salaried employees, consultants, lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, and administrative and overhead expenses, and that’s being generous. To put this in context, these are the generally accepted spending guidelines for non-profits:

Organization

Recommended/required minimum spending on program activity as a percent of total budget

 BBB Wise Giving Alliance

65%

 American Institute of Philanthropy

60%

 The United Way of the National Capital Area

80%

 

Indeed, there’s actually ample reason to believe that the Discovery Institute’s programmatic money is dramatically inflated, because during the last several years, nearly half of the expenditures they’ve itemized as “grants” has been given to the Biologic Institute, which is, essentially, a subsidiary organization.

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And if you delve into the 990 returns of Biologic, you’ll find that, like the Discovery Institute, it spends all of its money on salaries and overhead costs.

It’s a not-so-subtle sleight of hand: The Discovery Institute entirely funds Biologic, down to the very last penny. In so doing, the Discovery Institute gets to list their expense as a “grant,” helping it to fulfill its mission as a non-profit and allowing it the ability to claim that it funds “scientific research,” and hoping that no one is the wiser, Biologic then spends the money (between $300,000 – $400,000 a year) to pay three other employees.

In addition to the money the Discovery Institute provides to Biologic, it lists the salaries it pays to its fellows as programmatic grants, which, to be fair, is common practice but, nonetheless, deserves mention. No doubt, many may be surprised that people like David Klinghoffer, who write for the Discovery Institute’s website, aren’t actually considered employees or consultants; they’re grouped together as grant recipients:

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If you combine the money the Discovery Institute provides to Biologic and the money it gives to so-called “fellows,” you’ll quickly realize: This is all an elaborate shell game; it’s a coy way of preventing the Discovery Institute from fully disclosing its activities.

And perhaps more importantly, it provides the Discovery Institute with the ability to claim to the public and to its donors that it is funding “scientific research” on intelligent design. If you scratch beneath the surface, however, you find that the Discovery Institute isn’t really funding scientific research (which requires real money); they’re funding salaries.

For what it’s worth, I anticipate the folks at the Discovery Institute would vehemently dispute my math and my characterization of their activities. First, I imagine they’d assert that they’re a “think tank,” and that, by the very definition of the term, they pay people to think. While I acknowledge they may self-identify as a “think tank,” it’s pretty hard to avoid the fact that they’re not spending any money on conducting scientific research, which is, ostensibly, what they claim to be thinking about. Scientific research requires real, substantial money for equipment and technology; it’s abundantly obvious that the Discovery Institute isn’t investing in research.

Second, they may suggest that I’m overlooking a crucial portion of their 990 returns, the part where they itemize their programmatic activities. So, here is their most recent report:

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Aside from the $831,554 in expenses they report for “developing” a transportation system between Washington, Oregon, and Canada (which seems ridiculous and well outside of their scope), they list nearly $3.5M for the “production of public service reports, legislative testimony, articles, public conferences and debates.” It’s, essentially, a job description, a way of summing up how they spent all of that money on salaries; it’s not programming, and it definitely has nothing to do with scientific research. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that this is programming, because, if it is, then it sounds like much of their programming is on lobbying state legislatures. That’s probably not surprising to anyone who has followed the Discovery Institute. After all, just last month, Joshua Youngkin of the Discovery Institute flew all the way down to Baton Rouge to lobby against the repeal of the Louisiana Science Education Act.

Here’s the problem, though: By listing its activities as the production of “public service reports” and the presentation of “legislative testimony,” the Discovery Institute is effectively disclosing that it is primarily a lobbying organization, not a think tank. To be sure, the Discovery Institute, as a tax-exempt 501c(3), isn’t prohibited from lobbying, but, as a general rule, a 501c(3) can’t spend more than 10% of its annual revenue on lobbying. In a separate portion of its most recent 990 report, the Discovery Institute disclosed some of its lobbying expenses:

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And while these numbers conform to guidelines on 501c(3) lobbying activities, they seem particularly suspicious, considering that earlier in the report, the Discovery Institute listed more than $3.5M in activities that appear to be awfully close to the definition of lobbying.

What, exactly, is the Discovery Institute lobbying for? Well, as it should be clear, they’re lobbying to keep the gravy train on track. As long as they have politicians willing to pander to creationists, they can maintain the charade, pretending as if they’re conducting “scientific research” while raking in millions in tax-deductible donations to pay for their salaries (including at least five employees who make six figures a year). And if they’re successful in convincing legislatures, like Louisiana’s, in passing laws that allow for the teaching of intelligent design, they stand to gain even more, because, not coincidentally, the very people who are paid by the Discovery Institute are also the authors of the textbooks and supplementary materials that would be purchased, in bulk. They’re not selling an idea; they’re selling a product.

See for yourself. Here are the most recent 990 disclosures from the Discovery Institute:

2011 990

2010 990

2009 990