Between taking selfies with John McCain and laughing along nervously with the President, attendees at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner- this year on April 25- settle into polite silence each year for the awarding of scholarships to young journalists. This feel-good segment is one of the ways the WHCA gets to call itself a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, as it was officially designated in 2004- that’s after Ozzy Osbourne first showed at the Washington Hilton but before Stephen Colbert’s roast of George W. Bush made the dinner a traffic-paralyzing national spectacle.
Pardon us for a moment, however, while we make like journalists and follow the money. As the event’s profile has risen, contributions to the association have jumped- from 2009 to 2013, the take increased by 162 percent, to $532,555- but scholarship payouts have inched only 10 percent higher, according to the WHCA’s tax filings. Put another way, the association spent almost 60 percent of its revenue on scholarships in 2009, but just 26 percent in 2013.
Some of the excess cash has gone to boost compensation of the group’s longtime executive director, Julia Whiston– from $40,000 a year in 2004 to a still-modest $142,000- and to build up cash reserves. The association also says it has put $100,000 into an endowment for future scholarships since its last filing. The WHCA isn’t in danger of violating the law- the rules governing 501(c)(3)s are so broad that a band of ghost hunters in Memphis qualifies. Nobody is accusing anyone of tapping corporate slush funds: The organization’s major donors are media homers like Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Politico.
But its donations-to-payouts ration causes Ken Berger, until recently CEO of the watchdog group Charity Navigator, to frown. “It appears,” he says, “as if the organization is more concerned with its own self-perpetuation than a selfless assisting of others in need.”
Christi Parsons, a Tribune Publishing correspondent and outgoing WHCA president, submitted responses to written questions, saying the group aims “to support and advance the public’s interest in the First Amendment, particularly the freedom of the press to report vigorously on the activities of the office of the President.”
But even wrapped in First Amendment ideals, the WHCA is more akin to the American Bar Association than to the Sisters of Mercy. “It strikes me that the primary purpose is to promote opportunities for journalists,” says attorney Bruce Hopkins, author of The Law of Tax-Exempt Organizations. “The charitable, educational part is more secondary than primary.”
When such things are said about other charities, they risk alienating donors. That won’t likely happen to the WHCA, whose fun dinner raises the bulk of its money. But as the event continues to attract more attention, and more cash, it may be time for the organization to act less like media clubhouse and more like the charity it purports to be.