The Rise and Fall of the National Organization for Marriage

Follow the Money

Founded in 2007, NOM made a name for itself as a significant funder of Proposition 8, which stripped marriage rights from California same-sex couples in 2008 and galvanized both proponents and opponents of marriage equality. NOM boasted of raising nearly $3 million for the effort and becoming the largest single contributor to the campaign.

For NOM, Prop 8 was the beginning of two years of explosive growth. From 2008 to 2010, NOM’s revenue grew by nearly $7 million. Internal documents obtained by HRC in 2012 and a state investigative report in Maine in 2014 revealed that this growth was a result of a conspiracy by NOM’s leadership to funnel undisclosed money from a few large anonymous donors into anti-LGBT political campaigns. In the wake of the public backlash to Prop 8, anti-LGBT funders determined that the best way to avoid growing public scrutiny was to use a secret funding vehicle. Enter NOM.

NOM's Financial Reports (IRS 990s) 2007-2013

NOM; National Organization for Marriage
Source: National Organization for Marriage, GuideStar

By 2010, NOM had annual revenues of nearly $11 million, sufficient to become the preeminent engine of anti-marriage political activity across the country. At the same time, NOM’s rise was fueled by a few large donors unaccompanied by any demonstration of grassroots support. In 2009, more than 75 percent of NOM’s budget came from just five donors. Likewise, in 2010, just two donors accounted for nearly two-thirds of the organization’s revenue. That year, donations under $5,000 accounted for less than nine percent of the organization’s revenue. 

Who were these donors? By law, NOM doesn’t have to disclose donors to the IRS. Documents show that the Catholic fraternal organization Knights of Columbus was a major financial supporter. However, only NOM knows the identities of the handful of individuals and organizations that propelled them to be the major force fighting marriage equality.

NOM’s revenues peaked in 2012, when it spent millions of dollars in failed attempts to oppose marriage equality at the ballot in Maine, Minnesota, Maryland and Washington. Soundly defeated in all four states, NOM ended the year nearly $3 million in the red.

By 2012, it was apparent that NOM was fighting for its own survival. In the court of public opinion, polls resoundingly showed that a majority of Americans supported marriage equality. In courts of law, NOM’s secretive fundraising operation was exposed as an illegal scheme as state investigators looked into how NOM secretly funneled money into political campaigns. As political, legislative and marriage litigation losses mounted and debts increased, even the few large donors that accounted for most of NOM’s revenue began slowing their investments.

An already bleak picture for NOM grew substantially worse in 2013 and 2014. The U.S. Supreme Court’s invalidation of Proposition 8 and Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, followed by dramatic court decisions across the country bringing marriage equality to 70% of Americans, made NOM increasingly irrelevant and powerless.

NOM’s 2013 financial numbers, released in November 2014, showed an organization on the verge of failure. NOM’s revenue dropped by over 50 percent from 2012. Just two donors accounted for more than half of the organization’s funding – further evidence that everyday Americans had little interest in furthering NOM’s extreme agenda. In addition, NOM’s educational arm revealed a 70 percent decline in revenues. NOM ended the year more than $2.5 million in debt.