Philanthropy Roundtable’s Free to Give campaign elevates the voices of everyday Americans who have dedicated their careers to supporting those in need. Their work is made possible by the freedom of all Americans to give to the causes and communities they care about.
The Roundtable recently sat down with Aaron Withe, chief executive officer of the Freedom Foundation, and Charlie Conner, chairman of the Foundation’s board. The conversation centered around the Foundation’s mission to educate public sector workers about their rights, particularly concerning unions. Withe and Conner also explained why supporting organizations like the Freedom Foundation uplift communities across America.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Tell us about the Freedom Foundation and your mission.
Withe: We are working to advance individual liberty, free enterprise and limited, accountable government. We strongly believe there is no path forward to realize those goals without removing the long-standing influence of government unions from our politics. These unions have taken money from teachers and other public employees and funneled it into the campaigns of politicians who are pursuing the union’s agenda at all costs. They then extort even more union dues from their members to fund more political races. This has been an ongoing cycle for decades in America.
In the 2020 election cycle alone, government unions spent over $1.6 billion in politics – more than any other special interest group in the nation. The scandal here is that this money belongs to public, hard-working employees. The Freedom Foundation is working to empower and uplift every public employee across the United States, within their rights, to get out of their union and put that money, roughly $1,100 per year in dues, back into their pockets.
Q: How can people who are interested in this cause help support the Foundation’s work?
Withe: There are a multitude of ways for people to support our work. We are extremely grateful to have over 5,000 donors across America, people who give donations directly to us, and others who give through their own family foundation or through foundations in their communities. Some donors also choose to use donor-advised funds, which specifically allow them to give freely to organizations like the Freedom Foundation.
Q: As you said, people have the ability to give to nonprofit organizations through different means. Yet there are policymakers in Washington, D.C., who are trying to limit the tools donors can use to give charitably. Does this concern the Foundation?
Withe: Ultimately, people should have the opportunity to give however they please. The reason we’re seeing an appetite from certain congressmen to limit the ways people can give is because charitable giving hasn’t benefited them. These are the same politicians that have benefited from the very existence of government unions. They don’t have to make more than 5 to ten campaign calls to different government unions to have their campaigns fully funded.
What we’re seeing from certain politicians is they don’t like that donors generally have been able to give donations anonymously, whether through donor-advised funds or by other means. This is their way of trying to fight back. It’s not good policy, though it doesn’t concern us because the type of people who support the Freedom Foundation and other like-minded organizations will always give through any mechanisms that are available, because they know just how important our mission is. And thus, I believe the Freedom Foundation will continue to thrive because of the generosity and will of our donors.
Q: You’ve faced much controversy over your bold mission, and as we consider donor-advised funds and the right to give anonymously, what role has donor privacy played in the Freedom Foundation’s ability to do great work?
Withe: Charlie is a great example here; as the chairman of our board, we are required to disclose him on our IRS 990-tax form each year, so people have become aware of who he is. Opponents of organizations like the Freedom Foundation not only attack us as an entity but they publicly attack anyone associated with us. People have sent hate mail to Charlie’s home, and to his neighbors as well. They’ve protested his business. They set up a website to discredit Charlie in his industry. They’ve also doxed Charlie and encouraged union members to visit his home. Their goal is to intimidate and inevitably make people like Charlie stop supporting what we’re doing through fear tactics.
Any donor who publicly identifies with the Freedom Foundation is liable to become attacked by these government unions. Fortunately, it hasn’t worked, and I believe these attacks have only strengthened their support of the Foundation. But that’s the goal, to eliminate them from supporting us. In fact, we have a filing cabinet in our office with all of the attacks we’ve received.
Conner: The Northwest “Un”Accountability Project, as I like to call them, a group that claims to promote social welfare, has gone so far as hand-delivering things to my mailbox to show that they know where I live. It makes me wonder; will they go beyond that? Letters have been sent to charities I support, saying you shouldn’t accept money from Charlie Conner. The things that have been sent out to try to destroy me and my reputation are ludicrous. I’ve got thick skin and I’m not afraid to fight, and that’s why I’m still here!
Q: Do you think all those damaging attacks could deter others from giving, particularly those who are worried they might get fired from their job if they donate to certain organizations?
Conner: I think so. Some of my friends who run corporations with union laborers would be very concerned if their giving became publicly known. In fact, we lost one board member because he believed his business would disappear if people found out he was on the board here. My main fear is younger people will be more reluctant to give, out of fear they’ll get fired for supporting certain organizations. Most of corporate America doesn’t understand economics and how the world works. They just think we can go down this utopian path and they don’t understand why things are operating so badly.
Q: The Freedom Foundation filed an amicus brief in support of Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF) in the Supreme Court case regarding California’s donor disclosure mandates. Why is donor privacy important to your mission, and after that decision, do you foresee any further threats to donor privacy?
Withe: The AFPF case is important because groups like the Freedom Foundation are the receiving 501(c)(3)s, and in my opinion, they should not have to disclose their donors to a government agency. It is completely wrong for the government to have that information, and I believe we shouldn’t be required to file Schedule B’s (a tax form that reports contributions of the greater total of $5,000 or more than 2% of revenues from any one contributor) to the IRS.
State governments have shown they have no interest in keeping that information confidential. I also don’t trust the IRS in keeping the information confidential, and we’ve seen several wealthy people’s tax documents disclosed in leaks. It’s great to see the AFPF case resolved, but the issue of donor privacy is still concerning because some politicians continue to go after donors to discourage them from giving. That is their goal, to discourage giving to organizations they disagree with. The organizations they do agree with, however, are often funded by unions. They have enough money and power to fund whatever organization they want to. Meanwhile, groups like the Freedom Foundation rely on the support of many tens of thousands of donors across America.
Q: Why do you believe protecting the freedom to give is important?
Conner: I believe it’s important because it preserves our right to freedom of speech. There are people who, for various reasons, don’t want the social pressure of having supported one organization over another. They simply don’t want to complicate their lives more, they’re private people. When others find out the organizations you support, people will work to target you, and they wouldn’t be able to if you were able to remain anonymous. It’s important we understand and cherish each of our individual freedoms and do what we can to preserve those rights for future generations.
Q: How has the Freedom Foundation made a lasting impression on you?
Conner: We’re out here fighting a battle. Some organizations, even political ones, take in a lot of money and have a lot of staff, but what are they accomplishing? There is certainly an opportunity to persuade people by putting out factual information, but the government continues to confiscate wages to keep themselves in power. It’s awful.
Q: How do you personally like to give to the Freedom Foundation?
Conner: My favorite now is donating stocks to the Foundation. I have appreciating assets, and I’d rather not pay taxes on them, so I donate them directly.