3 D.C. area nonprofits among 7 recipients of MacArthur awards for creative institutions

The Campaign Legal Center, whose president helped Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert launch a Super PAC to show how easily campaign financing can be hidden, is among three Washington area nonprofit groups that have received the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced Thursday.

The annual awards of up to $1 million are given to nonprofit groups worldwide that the foundation has worked with in the past and that it wants to help increase in scope at a strategic point in their development. This year saw the largest number of Washington area recipients in the awards’ eight-year history.

The District-based National Housing Trust, which helps increase the availability and quality of affordable housing nationwide, and the Arlington County-based NatureServe, which studies conservation and nature preservation around the world, each received $1 million. The Campaign Legal Center received $750,000.

There were four other recipients this year: ProPublica, a New York-based investigative journalism organization; the Citizen Lab, a Toronto-based group that combats human rights abuses in cyberspace; the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which uses evidence to reduce crime and violence; and the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative in Abuja, Nigeria, which protects the rights of Nigerian women.

Grantees are selected by the foundation and invited to apply for the award. They are chosen based on their impact and effectiveness as well as good management, said the foundation’s president, Robert L. Gallucci.

Gallucci praised the legal center for “improving the functioning of the American democratic process and their focus on the corrosive influence of money in politics.”

He lauded NatureServe, which studies and maps biodiversity and makes the information accessible to governments, groups and individuals, as “the one everybody goes to to learn how to preserve species.” And he praised the National Housing Trust for saving more than 25,000 affordable rental homes in 41 states.

The $1 million is a significant addition to NatureServe’s $6 million endowment, said its president, Mary Klein. The organization maps species in areas that include Great Falls, where two ecoregions come together, and the Amazon region of the Andes. Development there has threatened unique plant and animal species, such as the Atelopus erythropus, a critically endangered species of toad with a range restricted to a small area within the Andean cloud forest of the Peru Amazon Basin, and the Passiflora cuscoensis, (literally, Cuzco passion flower), an endangered plant found in the same area.

The group has created a prototype of a “biodiversity dashboard” that will track the status of species in given locations over time.

“It helps people get right to the question of what is the status of the forests and the species in the area,” Klein said, “so they can tell what the trend is, whether things are getting better and how development is affecting it.”

NatureServe will put the bulk of its award into creating an endowment to focus on research and development, Klein said, adding, “It’s obviously a wonderful honor, and we’re thrilled to be selected.”

The National Housing Trust will invest its award money in improving the sustainability of businesses it works with, said its president, Michael Bodaken.

The trust works with people in tenuous financial situations to preserve their homes, including 800 units in the Washington area, Bodaken said. He cited the R Street Apartments, a development in Northwest Washington’s 14th Street corridor where low-income residents were able to remain in stable housing even as prices soared.

“It was unexpected and most appreciated,” Bodaken said of the award, which he said represents a fifth of the trust’s annual budget. “It’s not every day you get a gift or an award for doing work you love.”

Campaign Legal Center’s president and general counsel, Trevor Potter, assisted Colbert in forming a fake political action committee in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Colbert detailed the process on his comedy show, “The Colbert Report,” to demonstrate how easy it is for such committees to hide the sources of political funding.

Potter, who also works at the District law firm of Caplin & Drysdale, was hired by Colbert to create the PAC and appeared on his show to explain how the system works. After the PAC successfully raised $1.2 million, Potter said, Colbert donated it to various charities, including about $130,000 to the center, which analyzes issues related to campaign finance and litigates cases involving campaign financing.

“The point he was making was look at all these things you can do,” Potter said. “All you have to do is hire a good lawyer and you can take money without anyone knowing it and spend it on campaigns without anyone knowing it.”

Potter said the award money would become part of a reserve to shore up the organization, which he said has no endowment. Some will also be used to revamp the center’s decade-old Web site, which provides summaries of and access to legal cases involving money and politics.

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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