As charitable foundations go, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation punches way above its weight.
In 2012, the organization brought in $584,347 in contributions and grants, and spent $582,136. That’s below the $1 million threshold that many rating agencies use in deciding whether a foundation merits evaluation, and is dwarfed by national giants with much lower profiles.
But thanks to Mikey Weinstein, MRFF’s pugnacious founder, CEO and sole paid employee at $270,000-plus a year, the Albuquerque-based organization with high visibility in Colorado Springs is well-known — even notorious.
Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, has deep ties to both the military and to old-school Republicanism. Three of his children are AFA graduates. Weinstein worked 10 years as a JAG attorney and three years as an associate general counsel in the Reagan White House.
In 2004, Weinstein founded MRFF in response to what he perceived as the undue influence of “far-right militant radical evangelical religious fundamentalists” within the military.
Throughout the past decade, Weinstein regularly has made headlines for taking on Academy leaders over religious issues.
MRFF’s stated goal is to “ensure that all members of the U.S. Armed Forces fully receive the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom to which they and all Americans are entitled by virtue of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
Who is he fighting?
Weinstein zeroes in on the above-mentioned subset of believers. Members of the armed forces who subscribe to such beliefs, Weinstein said, constitute an American Taliban, who put their religious beliefs before their “blood oath” to uphold the Constitution.
Earlier this year, Weinstein notified AFA brass that a senior cadet had posted a Bible verse (Galatians 2:20) on the whiteboard outside his dorm room, saying that 29 cadets and four faculty members had complained about the posting to MRFF.
The Academy ordered the cadet to remove the post, igniting another conflict between MRFF and its foes.
In a March 28 letter to USAFA Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, representatives of 21 different conservative organizations, including the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, Judicial Watch and the Liberty Institute, defended the cadet’s posting and urged her to reverse the decision. They contended that censoring such religious speech violated military religious freedom.
All the signatories are powerful, well-funded organizations with assets and reach that far exceed those of MRFF.
The American Family Association, for example, has more than 1 million “online supporters,” owns 200 radio stations and has a website that boasts nearly 6 million unique visitors and 44 million annual hits.
According to its website, the association “uses all these means to communicate an outspoken, resolute, Christian voice throughout America.”
This battle is playing out in the form of back-to-back billboards on Academy Boulevard. Weinstein revels in the fight, using language that is often offensively personal.
Weinstein’s repeated clashes with the Academy have often spilled over into Colorado Springs. Seven years ago, when Weinstein debated Jay Sekulow at the Academy, Rabbi Howard Hirsch, who then headed the Center for Christian-Jewish Dialogue, distanced himself from Weinstein’s positions.
Hirsch wrote, “I assure you that quiet diplomacy and cool heads have produced more lasting results for us than any inciting appearance of Mikey Weinstein. The Jewish community will not benefit from his appearance.”
Former Colorado Springs City Council President Scott Hente has known Weinstein all of his life.
“Our fathers graduated in the same class at the Naval Academy,” Hente said, “and Mikey and I were at the Academy together. I was class of ’75 and he was two years later, so I kind of kept an eye on him, encouraged him when things were tough. Our families are still very close. He’s a great fan of Academy sports, so we’ve gone to quite a few games in Albuquerque when the Academy plays New Mexico.”
Beyond that, Hente refuses to comment on Weinstein’s organization.
“This is a full-contact sport,” said Weinstein. “I’m not running for office.”
MRFF has a star-studded, 30-member “advisory board,” including such luminaries as actor Mike Farrell, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. The actual board, however, has only three members: Weinstein; Ambassador Joseph Wilson (best known as former CIA operative Valerie Plame’s husband); and retired Marine Corps Maj. William E. Barker, a junior ROTC instructor for Albuquerque Public Schools.
Weinstein said MRFF has more than 170 volunteers, representing 39,212 clients, all of whom are either active duty or retired military.
In 2012 (the most recent year for which figures are available), Weinstein collected $273,355 in “reportable compensation” from the foundation, nearly 47 percent of the organization’s total contributions. The 2012 MRFF IRS Form 990 listed him spending 80 hours a week at his job.
In addition to Weinstein’s salary, the organization spent approximately $300,000 on other operating expenses, including $26,669 on accounting, $13,899 on travel, $13,342 on insurance, $16,165 on benefits, $24,450 on research, $43,092 on support, $54,250 on consulting, $54,904 on unspecified program service expenses, $24,937 on other management of general expenses and $93,409 in “all other expenses.”
According to the 990, Weinstein’s salary was determined by a compensation survey approved by the board. MRFF is “an organization exempt from income tax” under section 501 (c)(3) of the internal revenue code. Contributions to MRFF are tax-deductible.
A 2011 compensation study by the Council on Foundations surveyed 125 foundations where the CEO was the only staff person.
“The median CEO salary at these one-person foundation shops was $85,000,” the Council reported, “though the range went from $29,000 to $244,000.”
Larger foundations were also relatively parsimonious. CEOs at 74 surveyed foundations with assets of $500 million or more received a median salary of $380,000.
It may be misleading to compare Weinstein’s compensation with that of other small foundation CEOs, because MRFF is atypical of such organizations. MRFF relies entirely upon contributions and spends almost everything it takes in. The organization depends upon Weinstein’s national celebrity to attract donors and fund its missions. Weinstein has been interviewed hundreds of times by the national media.
The foundation received $2.9 million in donations from 2008 to 2012. As of the end of 2012, it had $186,000 in assets.
“Our average contribution is something like $25 or $50,” said Weinstein, who confirmed that the foundation has “two or three dozen very excellent donors — I’m not going to identify them.”
Will MRFF outlive its founder?
“I’m heavily secured,” he said. “I get eight to 12 death threats a month. You have to inhabit this — but we need people to do what’s right here.”