Turning Point USA donations surged during the pandemic

Turning Point USA, the conservative organization that parlayed culture war activism on college campuses into major influence in U.S. politics, enjoyed a financial windfall during the pandemic, according to newly filed tax records.

The nonprofit organization reported $55 million in revenue in its 2020 fiscal year (June 2020 through June 2021), a 40% increase over the previous year. Contributions to its political arm, Turning Point Action, increased from $2 million to $11 million over the same period. 

Turning Point USA, which received just $8 million in contributions in 2016, has raised $138 million over the last five years, according to the organization’s Form 990, a tax document filed by nonprofit groups. And while the organization’s reach continues to grow, its funding base remains relatively small. Roughly half of its 2020 income came from 10 anonymous donors.

The money has made TPUSA, as it is commonly known, into one of the most active political organizations in the U.S.

“They started out here as a grassroots recruitment tool to recruit precinct committeemen into being involved in the Republican Party,” said Chuck Coughlin, founder and president of HighGround Inc. and an Arizona Republican consultant. “That has evolved to a full takeover of the Republican Party.”

Turning Point USA surged while other well-established conservative nonprofit organizations struggled in 2020, including The Heritage Foundation, which recorded a 44% decrease in contributions and grants in 2020. Others, including the American Enterprise Institute, reported stagnant or declining revenue. Part of Turning Point USA’s success is due to its touring and fundraisers during the pandemic.

“Turning Point USA chose to invest and push forward while much of the rest of the country locked down and businesses shuttered,” Andrew Kolvet, a spokesperson for Turning Point USA, said in the emailed statement. “The organization was rewarded for seeing the moment for what it was, an opportunity to double down on its mission, advocating for opening America back up, and for medical and bodily autonomy, especially for students.” (To argue their positions against vaccine and mask mandates, Turning Point USA has co-opted language like “bodily autonomy” long used by feminist and reproductive rights movements.)

Founded in Arizona in 2012 by Charlie Kirk, then 18, and William Montgomery, a then-72-year-old Illinois businessman and conservative activist who died in 2020 from complications of Covid.

In the early years, Turning Point USA’s activities were focused on colleges: speaking at campus events, provoking progressives on campus and online, running a “Professor Watchlist” that claimed to expose leftist educators, and helping conservatives win student leadership positions. 

It now claims in promotional materials to have a presence on more than 3,000 college and high school campuses.

“One of the reasons that TPUSA is getting so much money is because conservative donors can see that it’s working,” said A.J. Bauer, an assistant professor who studies right-wing movements and media at the University of Alabama, citing the conservative news and conversations surrounding topics like critical race theory and LGBTQ school debates. “Donors rightly see that as intervening in the discourse in a way that boosts them.”

Noting Turning Point USA’s tactics, including messaging that denies the existence of transgender people, and campaigns that attack diversity initiatives and invite students to record and expose professors’ liberal ideologies, Bauer said the group has been particularly successful at moving conservatives further to the right. 

“Turning Point USA is about provocations that shift the discourse, specifically on issues that have long been seen as losing positions for the conservative movement,” Bauer said.

“They’re reintroducing homophobia and trying to reintroduce sexism and anti-feminism into popular discourse,” Bauer said.

Kolvet, the Turning Point USA spokesperson, disputed this characterization and said in the emailed statement that Turning Point USA “stands up for everyday, grassroots Americans that don’t recognize the country they’re living in anymore.”

“Turning Point USA’s message hasn’t changed, but the progressive activists have become more radical,” Kolvet said. “Turning Point supports every man and woman’s agency to make their own decisions, but America’s students should not be indoctrinated or sexualized when it comes to curriculum and public policy. We stand up for parental rights. No name calling or accusations will change that.”

In recent years, Kirk, now president and CEO of Turning Point USA, expanded the scope of his organization, arguing that leftist ideas once relegated to college campuses have metastasized to the broader culture. 

“With student groups, the idea always was to get to the students, but also to build this cadre for future conservative activism,” said Amy Binder, a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and author of “Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives.” “And so is it surprising that an organization originally built for students can become a powerhouse in wider-scale politics? No, because that was the point.”

Turning Point USA borrowed a lot of its activism strategy from earlier conservative student-focused organizations, including Young America’s Foundation and the Leadership Institute, Binder said. But it set itself apart in notable ways. 

“Turning Point had this incredibly young, charismatic leader, whereas the former organizations had these older leaders. So Turning Point just took off with donors,” Binder said. “The other thing Turning Point had going: It got completely, inextricably bound up in Trump world. And it was a very mutual, symbiotic relationship.” 

Kirk was an early supporter of former President Donald Trump, working on social media outreach for his campaign. 

Kirk refers to the former president in extraordinary terms. He’s called Trump “the bodyguard of Western civilization” and “the most honest President in US history.”

Kirk reported $407,000 in salary and benefits for the year ending June 2021 from Turning Point USA and Turning Point Action, according to the tax documents. This is separate from Kirk’s other income streams, including book sales, sales of products including hot sauce, and his podcast through which he solicits individual donations.  

Turning Point Action participated in efforts to “Stop the Steal,” bussing in supporters to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, and funneling money to rally speakers, including former Fox News anchor Kimberly Guilfoyle, but did not organize or take part in the march to the Capitol that erupted in violence. Turning Point USA did use its various platforms and clandestine internet organizing to spread misinformation and seed distrust in the upcoming election that bolstered the Stop the Steal movement. 

Turning Point USA has also sought to open a series of private “academies” aimed at developing an “America-first curriculum” and partnering with schools and individual teachers to implement those lessons in grades K-12. According to its website, Turning Point Academy would be “the nation’s first national brick-and-mortar network of schools celebrating and instilling patriotic and pro-American values.”

Turning Point Academy failed to launch as promised in fall 2021. As reported by The Washington Post, a partnership with an Arizona education company disintegrated early this year, which would have made the Turning Point Academy curriculum available via an online private school and home schools. In June, Turning Point USA announced its first official partnership with Dream City Christian, a K-12 private school in Glendale, Arizona. 

The organization has been a favorite among Trump and his allies. Trump has delivered speeches at four Turning Point conferences since 2019. The Turning Point USA website features glowing testimonials from former Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr.

The conservative nonprofit organization laid out its plans in a 2021 document meant for investors, as reported last year by the Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive organization. In the introduction to the investor prospectus, Kirk wrote that in the coming year Turning Point USA would “mount the country’s most forceful and systematic effort to win the American Culture War and to inspire our kids to love America again.” 

Turning Point USA plans to fight those so-called culture wars through seven separate initiatives, including events and conferences, social media programs, and in individual chapters. Turning Point USA set a goal of establishing another thousand high school chapters by the end of 2021.

Turning Point USA has been met with opposition, especially when targeting younger recruits. Students across the country have protested the opening of local Turning Point chapters in their high schools, citing among other things the group’s incendiary remarks about LGBTQ issues. 

“As a gay student I would feel unsafe with this group in this district,” one girl told Iowa’s Johnston School Board in April. The board approved the new high school chapter. 

Coughlin, the Arizona Republican consultant, said the group’s momentum is showing little sign of fading. He said Turning Point USA now taps into a deep well of people from a variety of backgrounds who have not previously been politically active.

“That’s effective because there’s a big constituency out there of nontraditional voters who just want to be involved and are angered by what they’re reading on the internet,” he said. 

“They’re still doing the campus thing. Now they do a young professional thing,” he said. “They’re doing the Republican Party recruitment thing. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. And they’re doing the evangelical thing. And so there’s a lot that they can do. And it’s scary.”