Discover more from Important Context
America’s Biggest Charities Bankrolled RFK Jr.’s Anti-Vax Outfit
Children’s Health Defense and other groups promoting vaccine misinformation discreetly raked in money from anonymous donors through some of the largest charities in the country
This report was produced in partnership with Rolling Stone.
In April 2020, as the first wave of the deadly coronavirus pandemic was breaking across the U.S., the largest charitable fund in the country, Fidelity Charitable, announced a plan to help mitigate the crisis.
“As the nation’s largest grantmaker, Fidelity Charitable is committed to supporting the nonprofit sector and the communities affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as to enabling our nearly quarter-million donors to respond effectively to the many needs emerging daily,” the fund, which distributed $11.2 billion in grants last year and is affiliated with Fidelity Investments, declared.
To that end, Fidelity Charitable said it would establish a trustee-led, minimum $1 million initiative to support Covid-response efforts and provide donors with guidance and resources to enable them to best direct their money amid the worst pandemic in a century.
“We are focused on helping our donors and the public at large identify the most impactful ways they can donate, use their talents, and harness their voices to help others affected by this crisis,” read the press release.
Despite the lofty promises, however, tax records reveal that Fidelity Charitable has funneled millions of dollars through its donor-advised fund program to groups pushing vaccine misinformation and skepticism. A large portion of the donations we identified came between July 2021 and June 2022 — after the first Covid vaccine became available to the public and while the pandemic was ongoing.
WAIT!!! Before you continue reading this free article from Important Context, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. Our work depends on support from readers like you!
For example, in its 2021-22 fiscal year, it gave roughly $1 million to Children’s Health Defense, a nonprofit founded by Robert Kennedy Jr. that sows doubt about vaccine safety, and two of its state chapters. Kennedy, who long promoted the debunked idea that vaccines can cause autism, has called the Covid shots an “ethnic bioweapon” and “a crime against humanity.” In a recent post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Children’s Health Defense claimed the mRNA jabs “contaminate” breast milk. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends pregnant and breastfeeding people stay current on their Covid vaccines, including the most recent booster.)
That same fiscal year, Fidelity Charitable also gave $235,000 to anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree’s Informed Consent Action Network — nearly twice the amount from the previous fiscal year. The group includes a section, “Vaccine Safety Debate,” on its website implying that the Department of Health and Human Services has not demonstrated the safety of Covid vaccines.
Fidelity Charitable is not alone in its anti-public-health spending. Throughout the Covid pandemic, big money flowed to groups supposedly promoting public health but in reality were peddling anti-vaccine misinformation, from some of the largest charities in the country, an analysis by Rolling Stone and Important Context has found. We tracked more than $15 million that donor-advised fund sponsors gave in 2020-22 to such groups — the lion’s share of the funds were distributed after the vaccines became available.
Donor-advised funds (DAFs) have become a popular vehicle for wealthy individuals and foundations to distribute cash — and remain under the radar. Functionally, these entities operate as passthrough organizations: Donors deposit money into an account managed by a DAF sponsor like Fidelity Charitable, which disburses it with the donor’s input. While donor clients “advise” the sponsor, the sponsor has full legal control of the money and where it ends up. Typically, the sponsors’ board of trustees has the final say.
“Some speculate that DAFs are facilitating contributions to controversial organizations that might not otherwise occur,” says Roger Colinvaux, a professor of law at the Catholic University of America. “DAFs provide a layer of anonymity between donor and recipient. This is the very nature of a DAF as an intermediary organization.”
With Republican-appointed justices dominating the bench since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has been extremely protective of the ability of wealthy Americans to influence politics and the public sphere with their money. Today, individuals with disposable income can drop cash and help spread half truths, misinformation, or outright lies all while remaining anonymous, thus facing no consequences for disseminating the equivalent of malware throughout society’s mainframe.
While DAFs come with significant benefits for donors, like the ability to transfer appreciable assets such as stocks without the burden of capital gains tax, the big draw for some is anonymity. Donors can give tax-deductible contributions to groups of their choosing without having their fingerprints on the money. The public won’t see the original donor’s name on any public filings, and recipient organizations don’t even have to report the original donor’s name privately to the IRS. Recipient organizations might not even know the identities of the donors. For this reason, DAFs are a common vehicle for funding entities like hate groups — or Covid-misinformation operations.
Among developed nations, the United States has been hit particularly hard by the airborne SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid. To date, more than 1.1 million Americans have lost their lives and millions more suffer long-term health complications, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Contributing to the suffering is the widespread proliferation of misinformation online — particularly related to the Covid vaccines, which have been shown to greatly reduce incidence of severe illness and death and somewhat reduce the chances of infection. Some studies suggest the vaccines also reduce the risk of long Covid. According to a May 2022 analysis by Brown University and Microsoft AI Health, roughly a third of the nation’s total deaths at the time — half since the jabs became available — could have been prevented with vaccination alone. Yet, vaccine hesitancy remains high, potentially threatening the rollout of the latest updated boosters. Only 17 percent of Americans got the bivalent dose. A recent Morning Consult poll does suggest that a majority of registered voters are likely to get the latest booster. Widespread skepticism has also affected uptake of other vaccines. For example, childhood inoculation against flu is now lagging behind pre-pandemic levels.
Covid-related misinformation has also fueled anger toward public-health officials and medical professionals. In February 2022, the American Medical Association noted that while threats of violence against such individuals had been on the rise for a decade, the uptick had become “even more of an alarming phenomenon since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The amount of money stealthy flowing to groups pushing vaccine and Covid misinformation from major charities provides insight into how public health became fraught at the time when it was needed most.
“In Their Sole Discretion”
Fidelity Charitable’s Program Guidelines specifically state that “the Trustees of Fidelity Charitable have exclusive ownership and control over all contributed property and all earnings thereon, and may determine in their sole discretion whether an organization shall be an Eligible Grant Recipient, and whether to approve any grant recommendation.”
The most recent three years of available federal tax records — from mid-2019 to mid-2022 — suggest, however, that the trustees may not have been completely careful with all of their grant recipients. The fund has passed roughly a whopping $2.7 million to Covid-misinformation and anti-vaccine groups throughout the pandemic. In addition to the donations to Children’s Health Defense groups and Informed Consent Action Network, Fidelity gave close to $180,000 to Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCC) in the 2022 fiscal year, a physician group known for its promotion of quack Covid cures like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin and for hyping up alleged safety issues with the vaccines. The group even advises that long Covid patients, who have been shown to benefit from vaccination, “avoid all Covid vaccinations.” That number was up from $18,000 in the previous period. FLCCC’s co-president, Dr. Pierre Kory, has expressed anti-vaccine views. Another recipient was the Brownstone Institute, a shadowy Covid misinformation and conspiracy hub founded in May 2021 to oppose public-health measures. The nonprofit, which received $64,000, published an article by its founder in December 2021 titled “Who Will Be Held Responsible for this Devastation?” that originally ran with a guillotine image and suggested “consequences” for the architects of lockdowns would be welcome. Brownstone also made former Trump administration HHS science adviser Dr. Paul Alexander a fellow, but scrubbed him from its website following reporting by Important Context that highlighted a post on his Substack calling for public trials and hangings of public-health officials. Fidelity Charitable also gave nearly $91,000 to the Epoch Times Association, which publishes the Falun Gong-backed conspiracy-promoting newspaper Epoch Times. The paper has published a number of articles containing vaccine misinformation, including one false report claiming it killed 17 million people.
Fidelity Charitable did not respond to a request for comment.
Their Unique Ability
Another major charity fueling anti-public-health sentiment in the U.S. is the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program, which is affiliated with investment management titan the Vanguard Group. In December 2020, the organization announced that its donor base had given nearly $1.3 billion to “nonprofits that are directly involved in Covid-19-related relief efforts as well as a host of other 501(c)(3) organizations, many of whom faced financial setbacks since the outbreak of the pandemic.”
But as with Fidelity Charitable, Vanguard Charitable distributed a significant amount of money to groups working against vaccination efforts. Between its 2020 and 2022 fiscal years, running from July 2019 through June 2022, it gave $2.8 million to organizations pushing vaccine misinformation and skepticism. Most of that money came during its 2022 fiscal year.
Vanguard Charitable gave a staggering $1,474,000 to Children’s Health Defense and its California chapter. Another $600,000 went to Informed Consent Action Network. It also gave $50,000 to Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom, which circulated a memo in 2019 urging people to “think twice before getting the flu vaccine” and, in 2021, put up billboards in Texas encouraging people not to be “bullied” into Covid vaccinations. Vanguard Charitable donated $150,000 and $26,000 to Covid-misinformation groups FLCCC and the Brownstone Institute, respectively. It gave $12,500 to the Epoch Times Association.
In response to our request for comment, Vanguard Charitable provided a statement over email.
“At Vanguard Charitable, we give our donors the right to recommend their donations to the IRS-qualified public charities of their choosing,” it reads. “We support grantmaking to all philanthropic-cause areas, however the grants recommended by donors reflect their values and beliefs; not those of Vanguard Charitable.”
Experts, however, told us that the real issue is the business model of DAFs like Vanguard.
“DAF sponsors have full legal control over the assets and DAFs and legally can do — or not do — whatever they want,” says Ray Madoff, professor and director of the Forum on Philanthropy and the Public Good at Boston College Law School. “That is because tax benefits are only available if the donors give up control over their donated funds. The issue is their business model.”
“One of the problems is the fact that our standards for 501(c)(3) status includes lots of organizations that promote hate and misinformation,” Madoff adds.
Catholic University’s Colinvaux notes that refusing donor advice would risk “alienating donors,” saying that “even if some DAF sponsors decide not to fund certain causes, there will always be other DAF sponsors that fund them.”
“Deemed Eligible by the IRS”
Some donors to Schwab Charitable, which was founded with support from financial services giant Charles Schwab & Co., used the fund to direct hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups promoting vaccine skepticism. During its 2020-22 fiscal years, giving included $570,000 to FLCCC, more than $400,000 to Informed Consent Action Network, and $18,000 to Health Freedom Defense Fund, which successfully sued the CDC and various government officials over the Biden administration’s travel mask mandate. The organization’s website encourages workers to organize against vaccine mandates at work. Earlier this month, it posted an article titled “Do You Know What’s in a Vaccine?” with a graphic reading “Toxic.” Schwab also gave the Epoch Times Association roughly $119,000.
In response to our inquiry, Schwab Charitable offered up a comment similar to what Vanguard Charitable provided.
“Schwab Charitable facilitates grants recommended by its donors to 501(c)(3) charitable organizations deemed eligible by the IRS and state regulators,” the organization told us in an email. “Grants recommended by donors do not reflect the values or beliefs of Schwab Charitable or its management.”
“Unique Power to Use Your Resources for Good”
In the summer of 2020, Morgan Stanley Global Impact Funding Trust’s president, Melanie Schnoll Begun, put out a call to action, in a “global impact review” for its donors.
“Amid an uncertain future, you — as individual donors — have the unique power to use your resources for good,” read the document. “Regardless of funding from major foundations, government and corporations, donors like you are nimble and fill the gaps other forms of support may not reach as quickly. To help you in this mission, our recent landscape surveys, Swing for the Fences and In Solidarity, provide a compelling array of national and local funding opportunities.”
Of course, like the other major DAF sponsors addressed in this article, the Morgan Stanley Global Impact Funding Trust also bestowed significant funds upon groups helping to fuel vaccine hesitancy between 2020 and 2021, with most of the spending occurring in the second year. (The trust’s 2022 tax records are not yet publicly available.) The fund gave $680,000 to Children’s Health Defense and its New York chapter; $135,000 to the Informed Consent Action Network; $100,000 to the Brownstone Institute; $75,000 to Physicians for Informed Consent in 2021, a physician’s group that casts doubt on the safety and efficacy of Covid vaccines and promotes bogus treatments for the virus like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine; and $50,000 to the National Vaccine Information Center, a long-established, well-known anti-vaccine group that sought to coordinate messaging with like-minded organizations early in the pandemic. It also gave $50,000 to the Epoch Times Association. (None of these groups immediately responded to requests for comment.)
In response to our request for comment, a Morgan Stanley spokesperson said the organizations “remains cause neutral and focused on advancing the strategic philanthropic efforts of our donor population.”
“For each grant to a domestic charity chosen by the donor, MS GIFT completes a robust review process, which includes confirming that the recipient organization is in good standing with the IRS, qualifies for exemption from federal income tax under Section 501(c)(3), and is not associated with any illegal activities,” they explained.
Predictably, ideological DAF sponsors on the political right have been enthusiastic supporters of anti-vaccine groups. DonorsTrust, for example, gave $15,000 to Informed Consent Action Network and $31,000 to the Epoch Times Association in its 2021 fiscal year. Meanwhile, the National Christian Foundation, a religious DAF sponsor that took in $3.1 billion in donations in 2021, gave nearly $1.1 million to FLCCC and more than $630,000 to Children’s Health Defense between its 2020 and 2021 fiscal years.
Neither DonorsTrust nor National Christian Foundation responded to requests for comment.
“In Good Standing With the IRS”
Community foundations, which operate similarly to DAF sponsors in that donors give to the foundation and recommend grants, have also helped fund groups promoting Covid misinformation and vaccine skepticism. For example, Fairfield County's Community Foundation, which is based in Connecticut, gave $200,000 to Children’s Health Defense between its 2020 and 2021 fiscal years. The Chicago Community Trust donated $100,000 to Children's Health Defense in fiscal year 2021. CommunityGiving, a foundation based in St. Cloud, Minnesota, contributed more than $160,000 to Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom in fiscal year 2022.
In response to our request for comment, Krista Carnes, the communications director of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, explains that her organization had “made two donor-advised grants to Children’s Health Defense in 2020 and 2021,” which “were recommended by the same donor.”
“FCCF did not make the grants as a discretionary contribution,” Carnes says. “Our policy is to verify that the recipient organization is a 501(c)(3) in good standing with the IRS.”
Meanwhile, Chicago Community Trust director of public relations Nina Alcacio pointed out that her organization had adopted an anti-hate policy in 2022 and also helped fund vaccine outreach in Black and Latinx neighborhoods in Chicago.
“[W]e offer multiple ways for donors to exercise their philanthropy through Donor Advised Funds and other giving vehicles so long as the organization is a 501(c)(3) public charity that does not engage in hateful activities,” Alcacio says. “The grants you reference were made through our Donor Advised Fund program.”
“No Simple Solutions”
With significant funding behind their operations, groups encouraging vaccine skepticism have helped politicize the lifesaving jabs and the pandemic as a whole. With politicization has come radicalization.
Scientists like Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., a renowned virologist from the Baylor College of Medicine who co-developed a patent-free Covid vaccine for use in poor countries, have expressed deep concern over growing animosity toward public health and scientists.
“As I report in my new book The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science, the anti-vaccine movement has transformed into a dangerous and politically charged enterprise,” Hotez says. “During the pandemic, it led to the unnecessary deaths of 200,000 Americans, including 40,000 in my state of Texas alone. That’s why we need to care about this. If we want to save lives, we must find a way to de-link or uncouple the anti-vaccine activism and antiscience from politics in America.”
Hotez has felt the impact of this politicization firsthand. He has been a frequent target of anti-vaxxers and the political right. In June, the scientist faced days of harassment after calling out misinformation on Joe Rogan’s podcast from Robert Kennedy Jr. Rogan responded with an invitation to the scientist to debate the anti-vax presidential hopeful on his program, and Elon Musk weighed in supporting the idea. In addition to the online dogpile, two individuals showed up at Hotez’s Houston home.
“Most days I’m OK, but when the attacks accelerate after, say, Fox News targets me on an evening broadcast or this latest with Elon-Rogan-Kennedy, the pile on becomes very dark and scary,” Hotez says.
Cutting off the funding spigot could help defuse some of the tension, but doing so is no easy task. Although DAF sponsors have full legal control over the funds they distribute, getting them to stop funding anti-vaccine and anti-public-health organizations may prove difficult.
It’s a problem, Colinvaux says, where, “there are no simple solutions.”