Who Funds TPUSA?
Despite these controversies, TPUSA has maintained a robust fundraising effort among traditional conservatives and corporate interests. The most recent study of TPUSA’s financing identified the source of roughly 43 percent of their revenue, over $11.1 million, between 2014 and 2018. Much of this budget comes from individual and foundation donors tied to the Koch’s donor network, including the Bradley Foundation and DonorsTrust, which provided $2.3 million. Several other key donors are family foundations tied to individuals that have been invited to attend Koch’s secretive donor seminars, like Thomas W. Smith, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, and the DeVos family. Foster Friess, an attendee of Koch’s summits, provided the seed money for TPUSA in 2012. FreedomWorks president Adam Brandon sits on the group’s advisory board along with Friess, Deason, and Ginni Thomas (the wife of Koch summit attendee and Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas).
Funding from Rauner and Friess appears largely responsible for the group’s budget increases from $52,000 in 2012 to $5.5 million in 2016. By 2017 the budget reached $8 million, and according to Kirk, that included funding from donors “in the fossil fuel space.” This may explain why TPUSA chapters have led fights against carbon divestment efforts on college campuses. In 2018 TPUSA had 322 employees and revenue of $10.8 million.
Turning Point USA is a non-profit “whose mission is to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote freedom.” However, its funders and tactics come from the worst of far-right corporate politics. Eighteen-year-old Charlie Kirk created TPUSA in 2012 to organize conservative college students, focusing on combating so-called liberal bias in colleges, calling universities “islands of totalitarianism.” In his book, Campus Battlefield, Kirk—who never went to college—writes that universities “have become leftist echo chambers that reinforce an anti-American, anti-freedom, pro-Marxist worldview.”
TPUSA’s ideology and tactics have made the organization very popular among far-right students. As many former members have revealed, there is a culture of overtly racist, alt-right leanings among the group’s leadership at all levels, including numerous instances that garnered national attention—often involving staff losing their job when their use of blatantly racist slurs, praise of Nazis, or circulation of anti-immigrant or antisemitic memes becomes public. Similar to YAL, TPUSA has become a convenient vessel for white supremacist groups like the American Identity Movement (AIM). Leaked chat logs from the white supremacist group AIM describe the group’s efforts to “[t]urn your local Turning Point USA chapter into a de-facto [AIM] chapter.”
To combat the so-called radical left on college campuses, TPUSA staffs a National Field Program and sends paid organizers to campuses. It claims to have “a presence on over 3,000 campuses.” TPUSA provides student groups with “educational” resources and publications as well as libertarian and pro-corporate branded materials, such as posters and flyers bearing the messages: “Big Government Sucks,” “Commies Aren’t Cool,” and “Fossil Fuels Save Lives.” It hosts a number of activist conferences, such as the High School Activist Conference, Young Latino Leadership Summit, Young Women’s Leadership Summit, and Winter in West Palm Beach Activist Retreat. Reporting has also documented that TPUSA has actively poured money into student government elections at colleges and universities across the country. For example, at the University of Maryland in 2015, the College Republicans president emailed out a call: “Anyone who wants to run for SGA president, Turning Point is offering to pay thousands of dollars (literally) to your campaign to help get a conservative into the position.” Examples such as these have led Kirk’s critics to label Turning Point the “super PAC for student government.” At several schools, candidates were removed from ballots after these contributions became public, as many schools have clear campaign finance regulations that forbid undeclared contributions from outside groups.
Despite this criticism, TPUSA has only doubled down on its investments in college elections. In a brochure pitched to potential donors, TPUSA claims that the student government candidates “we have supported and financed will have direct oversight and influence over more than $500 million in university tuition and student fee appropriations.” Their “Campus Victory Plan” has pledged to “commandeer the top office of Student Body President at each of the most recognizable and influential American universities.” The goals that TPUSA “hopes to achieve by spending big on student-government races” include “block[ing] all boycott, divestment and sanctions” efforts on campuses, defunding progressive groups, and promoting a “national speaker’s circuit and tour and forums using student resources to message American Exceptionalism and Free Market ideals on campus.”
In 2016 TPUSA became the unofficial campus organizing effort for the Trump campaign and claimed to have footholds on more than 1,000 campuses. Since then, the group has also been caught engaging in illegal campaign activity on behalf of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, facilitated by Ginni Thomas.
TPUSA also publishes the “Professor Watchlist” website, which states as its mission: “expos[ing] and document[ing] college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The list is compiled based on “reporting” done by Campus Reform, College Fix, and other right-wing outlets, as well as from a “Submit a Tip” form. A disproportionate number of professors profiled on the list are women, LGBTQ+, or scholars of color.
SourceWatch, “Turning Point USA”
DeSmog, “Turning Point USA”
Right Wing Watch, “Turning Point USA”
AAUP, “Toolkit on Turning Point USA,” Fighting Tarted Harassment of Faculty.
Pam Vogel, “The Conservative Dark-Money Groups Infiltrating Campus Politics,” Media Matters, March 29, 2017.
Brendan Joel Kelley, “Turning Point USA’s Blooming Romance with the Alt-Right,” Southern Poverty Law Center, February 16, 2018.
Jane Mayer, “A Conservative Nonprofit That Seeks to Transform College Campuses Faces Allegations of Racial Bias and Illegal Campaign Activity,” The New Yorker, December 21, 2017.
Alex Kotch, “Koch Foundation Criticizes Turning Point USA Even as Koch Network Funds the Group,” PRWatch, April 1, 2020.
**Information on this page was originally published in: Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture War (with Ralph Wilson, Pluto Press, 2021)