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Peter Thiel's Secretive Spending
Tax records reveal that the Thiel Foundation gave millions to a shadowy right-wing fund in 2021.
This report was written in partnership with the OptOut Media Foundation. Updated 10/16/23. See bottom for details.
The Thiel Foundation, the nonprofit charity of billionaire and right-wing megadonor Peter Thiel, gave millions of dollars in 2021 to a secretive donor-advised fund that has funneled money into groups that spread COVID denial as well as hate groups, federal tax records reveal.
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The founder of Silicon Valley tech giant Palantir Technologies, Thiel has made a significant amount of money as a result of the lucrative government contracts his company has secured over the years—and particularly during the pandemic. Since the 2016 election cycle, when he put more than $1 million towards electing Donald Trump, the tech billionaire has become increasingly political and openly far-right. A personal friend of Trump’s, Thiel stepped down from Meta’s board of directors in February 2022 to focus on the midterms. The billionaire would throw his money behind far-right Republicans like Ted Cruz, JD Vance, and Blake Masters.
Beyond Thiel’s direct spending on Republican elections, the billionaire’s foundation gave millions to DonorsTrust, a donor-advised fund sponsor that has been a reliable financial backer of COVID denialism, vaccine skepticism, and hate.
Donor-advised fund sponsors manage their clients’ money for a fee. Donors open accounts with the sponsor, depositing cash and transferring appreciable assets like stock intended for charitable donations. The client then “advises” the sponsor on which charities should receive donations. Clients’ donations are legally attributed to the sponsor, so their names are typically kept hidden from the public.
According to its 2021 IRS Form 990, the Thiel foundation gave $4.2 million to DonorsTrust. The organizations that may have received his money remain unknown. Separate inquiries about Thiel’s funding recipients to both the foundation and DonorsTrust went unanswered.
Masking Funders of White Nationalist Hate
DonorsTrust is one of the most prolific funding vehicles for right-wing groups. For many years, it has been a preferred conduit of donors in billionaire industrialist Charles Koch’s political network, but Koch isn’t the only heavy hitter associated with the fund. The Mercer family, known for its backing of nationalist Steve Bannon, and other big-name conservatives have used it as well. Its president is a member of the Council for National Policy, a secretive and influential Christian nationalist group.
DonorsTrust is notorious for bankrolling hate groups. From 2019-21, the group gave over $1.6 million to the VDARE Foundation. VDARE is designated as a white nationalist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which notes that the organization has “provided a crucial bridge between the more mainstream anti-immigrant movement, including major players in the Republican Party, and the white nationalist fringe.”
In 2020, DonorsTrust also gave $600,000 to the New Century Foundation, another hate group, which SPLC describes as “a self-styled think tank that promotes pseudo-scientific studies and research that purport to show the inferiority of blacks to whites — although in hifalutin language that avoids open racial slurs and attempts to portray itself as serious scholarship.” The foundation publishes a notorious online magazine called American Renaissance.
As the Center for Media and Democracy reported in November 2021, the $600,000 DonorsTrust contribution was greater than the foundation’s annual revenue in any year since 2010.
Throughout the pandemic, DonorsTrust has also been a reliable source of funding for groups spreading COVID misinformation and waging war on public health measures. The organization even set up a special program in 2020 called the “Growth and Resilience Project” to fund groups working to reopen the economy, against regulations, and spread public health narratives that normalize government “intrusion into our lives and livelihoods.”
One of the organizations funded through the program was the Mercatus Center, a right-wing think tank based at George Mason University. Mercatus received $30,000 for “Expanding Access to Free-Market Education.”
The Thiel Foundation has also funded Mercatus—consistently since 2019. According to its IRS Form 990, the foundation gave $250,000 in 2021. In 2020, Mercatus launched Emergent Ventures with a $1 million grant from Thiel’s foundation.
Emergent Ventures is one of the backers of Brown University professor Emily Oster’s research through her COVID-19 School Data Hub. Oster became infamous early in the pandemic for her op-eds in favor of school reopenings, which understated the risks of the virus to children and teachers. Founded in September 2021, the hub tracks modes of school learning—in-person, remote, and hybrid—to continue making the case against closures.
The list of sponsored projects under DonorsTrust’s “Growth and Resilience Project” has not been updated on DonorsTrust’s website since at least March 30, 2021, and the site states that the program ended in the summer of 2020.
However, DonorsTrust’s 2021 IRS Form 990 reveals that the organization has continued supporting groups that spread pandemic-related misinformation and oppose public health measures. For example, it gave $8 million to the State Policy Network (SPN), an organization that supports a web of libertarian state-based policy groups. SPN has long opposed government public health measures to control the virus. In the summer of 2020, before COVID vaccines were available, the group began amplifying its affiliates' pushes for school reopening. The next year, the network came out against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses, as well as mask mandates.
DonorsTrust also gave $361,000 to the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank that emerged early on in the pandemic as an influential advocate for reopening. In June 2020, Heritage published a reopening plan that criticized “lockdowns” and called for a “data-driven, precise approach to the disease” that would allow “many parts of the country to safely restart business activities, prepare to reopen schools as soon as possible, and begin to move toward some level of normalcy in daily life.”
“While suppression measures were meant to slow the spread of the virus, they have also slowed the spread of prosperity and caused unprecedented economic devastation,” the report charged.
The plan recommended targeted protections for the vulnerable, particularly in nursing homes. An October 2022 fundraising email from Heritage boasted that its recommendations had been adopted by 35 states, though the organization did not provide details when requested by Important Context/OptOut. In its 2020 annual report, Heritage also boasted that “the Trump administration and Congress continually looked to The Heritage Foundation and our National Coronavirus Recovery Commission in their response to COVID-19.”
More recently, Heritage has urged a GOP-led congressional inquiry into the U.S. pandemic response—a call that other right-wing dark money groups have echoed. In January, the group released a report called “Forging a Post-Pandemic Policy Agenda: A Road Map for COVID-19 Congressional Oversight,” which highlighted what it saw as “key weaknesses” of the federal response.
Those included the imposition of “lockdowns,” “costly school closures,” the CDC’s eviction moratorium, “veiling the origin of COVID-19,” and “suppressing of scientific dissent”—specifically, the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, a widely repudiated open letter from October 2020 published by a libertarian think tank that called for governments to reject broad public health measures in favor of a herd immunity strategy reliant on mass infection. The Trump administration embraced the document and its authors, who met with the president and senior officials to advise on COVID policy.
DonorsTrust also doled out $1 million to the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a litigation outfit headed by a former in-house counsel for Koch Industries that has been waging a legal war to protect COVID misinformation and take down pandemic interventions. NCLA helped defeat the CDC’s eviction moratorium and OSHA’s vaccine-or-test mandate for big businesses, and it is currently representing key spreaders of pandemic-related misinformation in two lawsuits.
DonorsTrust also gave nearly $400,000 to the Tea Party Patriots Foundation in 2021. That summer, the group’s “social welfare” arm, Tea Party Patriots Action, published a how-to guide for parents to “stop medical mandates” like mask and vaccine requirements, lockdowns, and school closures. Another $112,000 went to the Independent Women’s Forum, a dark money group that has received funding from Charles Koch and circulated a form letter in 2021 for parents to send to schools to oppose mask mandates.
The American Institute for Economic Research, the libertarian think tank that helped organize and sponsored the Great Barrington Declaration, got $55,000 from DonorsTrust in 2021. Meanwhile, the Epoch Times Association, the nonprofit behind Epoch Times, the far-right online conspiracy magazine that routinely espouses COVID and anti-vaccine misinformation, received $31,000.
Also of note is the donor-advised fund sponsor’s $15,000 contribution to CNP. The Christian nationalist organization gave Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, one of the authors of the GBD, a platform to rail against lockdowns and closures at its 2022 annual conference.
While DonorsTrust gives to a host of right-wing nonprofits, especially those affiliated with SPN, it also gives to non-political organizations as well. DonorsTrust’s money has flowed to colleges and universities and even the American Red Cross.
Correction 10/16/23: A previous version of this piece incorrectly said New Civil Liberties Alliance was founded by a former in-house counsel for Koch Industries. The group was founded with seed funding from the Charles Koch Foundation and is currently headed by a former in-house counsel for Koch Industries.