As political and media hot shots ready their formal wear for DC’s glitziest weekend, it’s time for Washingtonian’s (now) annual audit of the organization behind the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
You see, the big party isn’t just an excuse for Hollywood celebrities to swarm Washington and take selfies with West Wing staffers, it’s a fundraising event for the WHCA, a group of hundreds of journalists that, according to its website, works “to ensure a strong free press and robust coverage of the presidency by advocating for access to the president, White House events and administration officials.” The IRS originally designated the association a 501(c)(3) charitable organization in 2004, and the organization has for years funded college scholarships for journalism students.
However, when we took a look at the organization’s spending last year, here’s what we found:
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.
When I took these numbers to Ken Berger, the now-former CEO of the watchdog group Charity Navigator, he told me that “it appears as if the organization is more concerned with its own self-perpetuation than a selfless assisting of others in need.”
Likewise, Bruce Hopkins, author of The Law of Tax-Exempt Organizations, told me last year: “It strikes me that the primary purpose is to promote opportunities for journalists. The charitable, educational part is more secondary than primary.”
With the dinner scheduled for Saturday, we figured it’s time to take a fresh look at the association’s scholarship spending using data that’s become available since this time last year. Guidestar, an online database of information on charities, has since posted its tax filings for 2014. So how do these numbers look?
The association’s spending on scholarships for journalism students declined 26 percent, to $86,550, from 2013 to 2014–that’s the least it has spent on scholarships since 2007. The association spent only 21.5 percent of its revenue on scholarships in 2014, down from 26 percent in 2013 and nearly 60 percent in 2009.
George A. Lehner, a partner at Pepper Hamilton LLP and the organization’s counsel, says the decrease in scholarships spending was driven by factors outside the association’s control.
“In 2013, we gave a significant scholarship through GWU and Prime Movers in support of a DC based high school journalism program,” he told me in an email. “We were prepared to make a similar grant in 2014 but learned that the Prime Movers program was closed that year. The scholarships presented to the Board in 2014 for consideration and approval amounted to $86,550 K. The Board approved the full amount of the proposed scholarships.”
Lehner also told me in a phone call that the association has created an endowment in order to fund scholarships in the future. “So some of the money that we’ve been using for scholarships in the past has been added to the endowment fund,” he says.
Guidestar hasn’t posted the association’s tax filings for 2015, and Lehner said he was unable to provide them to me. He did, however, say that the association approved $86,550 in scholarships for 2015–the same amount as it spent in 2014.