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Introducing the Slate 90

A dive into the multibillion-dollar nonprofit sector.

In December 1996, one of Slate’s earliest major projects was the Slate 60—an index of America’s most generous philanthropists. It was inspired by an interview Ted Turner gave to Maureen Dowd where he explained that his greatest fear, when writing enormous charitable checks, was the effect they might have on his coveted place on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. Thus was the concept of “competitive philanthropy” born. By ranking and celebrating Americans’ largest annual gifts, the thinking went, Slate might encourage more of them.

During the Slate 60’s 15-year lifespan, philanthropists’ giving rose and fell roughly in line with the economy as a whole. The record-setting year of 2001 included no fewer than three separate billion-dollar gifts, and the total amount given by the top 60 donors came to $12.6 billion. Then, after the dot-com bust, the totals fell sharply. They recovered somewhat mid-decade, but by the time the Slate 60 had its final outing in 2010, total giving came to just $3.36 billion, down some 80 percent from 2008.

Ted Turner’s dream—that billionaires would compete with each other not only in terms of net worth, but also in terms of philanthropic generosity—didn’t seem to work out; it lives on to this day only in the super-attenuated form of the Giving Pledge. What’s more, more than half of the highly conspicuous donations of the ultra-rich were injected directly into the endowments of their already rich alma maters. Much of the rest was given to hushed museums in the form of very expensive donated art, or to other places that rich old people tend to congregate, like cultural arts centers and high-end hospitals. In other words, the funds the rich were giving went largely to institutions that tended to the needs and prerogatives of the rich and privileged.

Concentrating on this super-elite tranche of givers excluded the overwhelming majority of charitable donors: average individuals. The 2010 Slate 60, after all, represented just a tiny sliver—1.2 percent—of the $287 billion given by Americans overall. And it missed the bigger story of the billions of dollars in tax-free revenue that flow in and out of the coffers of nonprofit institutions in the U.S. As a result, we decided to launch a new list of nonprofit organizations: The Slate 90, we hope, will offer a more robust and useful portrait of the tax-free economy.

The nonprofit-industrial complex has metastasized in recent decades, thanks to the multibillion-dollar incentives provided by the American tax code. Americans have always been charitable—Alexis de Tocqueville, in 1831, noted their propensity to volunteer their time to various public-serving organizations. But “nonprofit” hasn’t always been synonymous with “tax-exempt.” Charities first became exempt from paying income taxes only in 1913, and in 1917 individuals started to be able to deduct charitable donations when filing their personal income taxes. (At that time, so few people paid income tax, the tax break was small.) The laws expanded further in subsequent decades: Corporate tax deductions arrived in 1936, and tax-exempt private foundations arrived in 1969. Over time, as the sector ballooned, and right up to the present day, lawyers and accountants found increasingly clever ways to squeeze as much of their clients’ activity into nonprofit entities as possible. And all along the way, they were aided by lawmakers, who rarely found a church or do-gooding organization they didn’t feel like helping out with a new tax exemption.

How much economic activity has been maneuvered into tax-exempt nirvana? It’s almost impossible to measure. What do you get when you add up all the property taxes that aren’t paid by nonprofit universities? What’s the total amount of tax that credit unions would pay if they were banks? It’s tough to get simple answers to such simple questions—questions that have to be asked before we can even begin to decide whether the fiscal trade-offs are worth the cost.

The Slate 90

Examining the multibillion-dollar nonprofit sector.

The nonprofit world is vastly larger than just the kind of organizations we feature in the Slate 90: For example, our methodology only includes organizations that file a Form 990 to the IRS, because since 2006 all of those forms have had to be made available for public inspection. Think of the Slate 90, then, as a window into the most public part of the tax-exempt world (the rest of it is much shadowier).

Even within institutions filing 990s, charitable donations make up only a tiny proportion of the amount of money received by many of the organizations. Institutions like the Harvard Business School charge tuition fees; hospitals like UPMC in Pittsburgh charge for medical treatment; nonprofit college sports conferences like the Big Ten earn billions of dollars in television rights fees from broadcast companies. All of it on a tax-free basis.

We define the Slate 90 as the 10 largest nonprofits by revenue in nine different nonprofit sectors defined by the Internal Revenue Service. (If we looked at the largest nonprofits overall, we’d end up with a boring list of “eds and meds”—education and health care.) Additional categories include: Arts, Culture, and Humanities; Environment and Animals; Human Services; International/Foreign Affairs; Mutual/Membership benefit; Public/Societal Benefit; and Religion-Related. (See the full Slate 90 below.)

Unlike the Slate 60, the Slate 90 is not a list you can add up. There’s a whole bunch of double-counting going on here. (Ducks Unlimited, for instance, gets a large amount of its revenue from other charities that are willing to pay for it to preserve wetlands.) And we’re necessarily behind the curve, using the data for fiscal 2015 for the rankings, because many of these forms come in very late; by the end of this year, we should have a decent idea of how the 2016 list is shaping up.

Still, the big picture in this list is abundantly clear. The nonprofit sector is a hugely significant part of the U.S. economy, and it interacts with, competes against, sustains, and supplies much of the taxable economy that we encounter on a daily basis. The household-name charities that you give to every year? Many of them are here: PBS (No. 3 in Arts, Culture, and Humanities) has revenue of $473 million, Save The Children (No. 9 in International/Foreign Affairs) has $641 million. But there are also loads of unfamiliar organizations, like Five Pointe Professional Liability Insurance Company ($64 million), or the Partnership for Supply Chain Management ($1.15 billion). Battelle Memorial Institute, a Columbus, Ohio–based nonprofit R&D outfit ($4.77 billion) alone had higher revenues in 2015 than the entire Slate 60 combined gave in 2010. The Kaiser Foundation Health Plan’s revenues are ten times larger than those of Battelle—at $48.7 billion in 2015. And every one of them is tax-exempt.

Over the course of the next few days, this inaugural installment of the Slate 90 will take you behind the scenes of at least one charity in every sector. Some of these institutions do great things with their non-taxed revenues; others, not so much.

You’ll see how Yale University is reshaping its entire city. We’ll ponder why the Big Ten Conference is a nonprofit, be awed by the growth of Fidelity Charitable, wonder whether there’s a future for the American Bible Society now that the Good Book has been translated into virtually every language, ask what the point of the Met Gala is, and ponder how the YMCA Retirement Fund is even a charity in the first place. Some of these organizations are good and worthy; others aren’t. But they’re all equally tax-exempt under the law, answerable in practice to almost no one except overstretched state attorneys general. Every single organization on this list represents a significant tax expenditure; collectively, they represent a massive pot of uncollected taxes that, ultimately, need to be made up by the rest of us. Is that a bargain worth making? Take a look at Food for the Poor, and decide for yourself.

Read all of the Slate 90 stories here.

The Slate 90

The Slate 90 represents the top 10 American nonprofits* by revenue in nine categories: arts, culture, and humanities; education; environment and animals; health; human services; international, foreign affairs; mutual/membership benefit; public, societal benefit; and religion-related.

Arts, Culture, and Humanities

1)     Smithsonian Institution: $1.355 billion
2)    Metropolitan Museum of Art: $474 million
3)    Public Broadcasting Service: $473 million
4)    Corporation for Public Broadcasting: $461 million
5)    Museum of Modern Art: $385 million
6)    Metropolitan Opera: $335 million
7)    American Museum of Natural History: $284 million
8)    John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: $239 million
9)    Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: $216 million
10) National Gallery of Art: $208 million

Education

1)     Harvard University: $6.609 billion
2)    University of Pennsylvania: $6.294 billion
3)    Stanford University: $6.035 billion
4)    Johns Hopkins University: $5.798 billion
5)    Yale University: $5.462 billion
6)    New York University: $5.328 billion
7)    Columbia University: $4.911 billion
8)    University of Southern California: $4.639 billion
9)    Vanderbilt University: $4.504 billion
10)  Cornell University: $4.351 billion

Environment and Animals

1)     National Geographic Society: $1.073 billion
2)    The Nature Conservancy: $959 million
3)    New Venture Fund: $318 million
4)    Wildlife Conservation Society: $292 million
5)    San Diego Zoo: $275 million
6)    Atlantic Coast Conservancy Inc.: $274 million
7)    National Fish and Wildlife Foundation: $220 million
8)    World Wildlife Fund: $218 million
9)    Conservation Fund: $215 million
10) Ducks Unlimited Inc.: $210 million

Health

1)     Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc.: $48.466 billion
2)    Kaiser Foundation Hospitals Inc.: $22.589 billion
3)    Partners HealthCare: $11.117 billion
4)    UPMC: $10.589 billion
5)    Dignity Health: $10.094 billion
6)    Cleveland Clinic Foundation: $7.767 billion
7)    Ochsner Health System: $6.628 billion
8)    Fidelis Care: $6.494 billion
9)    CareSource: $6.203 billion
10) Providence Health and Services: $5.953 billion

Human Services

1)     American Red Cross: $2.727 billion
2)     Feeding America: $2.201 billion
3)     Partnership for Supply Chain Management: $1.149 billion
4)     National Collegiate Athletic Association: $952 million
5)     Navigate Affordable Housing Partners: $540 million
6)     Southeastern Conference: $527 million
7)     Big Ten Conference: $449 million
8)     Pac-12 Conference: $439 million
9)     Community Care Inc.: $407 million
10) Atlantic Coast Conference: $403 million

International, Foreign Affairs

1)     Food for the Poor: $1.158 billion
2)    World Vision: $1.005 billion
3)    Direct Relief: $889 million
4)    Institute of International Education: $843 million
5)    Compassion International: $768 million
6)    Americares: $742 million
7)    International Rescue Committee: $689 million
8)    Plan International: $684 million
9)    Save the Children: $641 million
10) Population Services International: $637 million

Mutual/Membership Benefit

1)     YMCA Retirement Fund: $644 million
2)    Lokahi Assurance Ltd.: $268 million
3)    International City Management Association Retirement Corp. (ICMA-RC): $224 million
4)    WMC–New York Inc.: $128 million
5)    Dignity Health Hosp & Professional Liability Self-Insurance Trust: $106 million
6)    Ascension Health Professional and General Liability Self-Insurance: $99 million
7)    Yale University Retiree Health Benefits: $64 million
8)    Five Pointe Professional Liability Insurance Company: $64 million
9)    American Institute for Chartered Property Casualty Underwriters: $59 million
10) Nonprofits Insurance Alliance of California: $57 million

Public/Societal Benefit

1)     Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund: $5.394 billion
2)    Battelle Memorial Institute: $4.775 billion
3)    Schwab Charitable Fund: $2.169 billion
4)    Silicon Valley Community Foundation: $1.555 billion
5)    Mitre Corp.: $1.484 billion
6)    Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program: $1.319 billion
7)    National Christian Charitable Foundation: $1.162 billion
8)    National Philanthropic Trust: $1.004 billion
9)    Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transportation Operating Authority: $979 million
10) Aerospace Corp.: $917 million

Religion-Related

1)     Samaritan’s Purse: $594 million
2)    American Bible Society: $369 million
3)    Christian Broadcasting Network: $294 million
4)    Ascension: $281 million
5)    Educational Media Foundation: $167 million
6)    Trinity Broadcasting Network: $147 million
7)    Christian Healthcare Ministries: $146 million
8)    International Fellowship of Christians and Jews: $133 million
9)    Family Christian Resource Centers Inc.: $105 million
10)  InterVarsity Christian Fellowship: $98 million

Source: GuideStar

*The Slate 90 organizations and rankings are based on form 990 filings (individual and group returns) for American-domiciled 501(c)(3) public charities based on 2015 revenue in each of the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities’ (NTEE) nine major categories: arts, culture, and humanities; education; environment and animals; health; human services; international, foreign affairs; public, societal benefit; religion related; mutual/membership benefit.

Notes on methodology:

• Revenues have not been verified independently.
• Organization names are listed by their commonly referred to names or “doing business as” name, such as Harvard University instead of the 501(c)(3)’s legal name, President and Fellows of Harvard College; Smithsonian Institution instead of Smithsonian Institution Office of the Comptroller; or Fidelis Care instead of New York State Catholic Health Plan.
• In a limited number of instances an NTEE code for a given nonprofit was updated to ensure the code aligned best with the organization’s purpose and work.
• All revenue numbers have been rounded to the nearest million dollars.

What is not included in this list (and why):

Private Foundations: while they fall under the 501c(3) code, these organizations file a Form 990-PF and are not included in this list.
• Organizations that are not required to file a return: most notably churches and certain church-affiliated organizations. As a result, the NTEE category list for “Religion Related” is based only on organizations that are required to file or that voluntarily submitted an annual return with the IRS.
• Foreign organizations that have applied for and been recognized as 501(c)(3) through the IRS.

This analysis was done in partnership between Slate and GuideStar, a nonprofit information source. Special thanks to GuideStar’s Holly Ivel and Chuck McLean for their contributions.