The story so far: in an effort to donate money to the Civil War Preservation Trust, we have been searching their website for financial info, wanting to know how donations and membership fees are used. We are also looking for details on complex land transactions that the Trust has engaged in that have been reported elsewhere.

It appears that anyone wondering how the Trust is spending money has to go outside the CWPT's own website to find out. Fortunately, there is a link on the site to GuideStar Plus, a charities database. Within that site, the Trust's IRS Form 990s are available for our review. (Registration required).

These IRS 990s paint an interesting picture. First, the numbers.

CWPT's net assets at the end of 2003 were $16,251,940. Much of that seems to be in land holdings and it appears from these records that a single contribution (presumably land) of nearly $11 million was made in 2001, radically changing the nonprofit's fiscal profile. Membership dues brought in $1.40 million (up from the year previous) . Combined with grants and other income, total revenues were $5.40 million and expenses were $3.62. That's nearly $1.8 million in operating surplus ("profit"). It more than offsets $1.4 million in dues.

What this means is that CWPT has, financially, outstripped any need for members (i.e. participants, supervisors, electors), except that members can act as a mailing list for additional donations. CWPT can choose to be one of those organizations made up entirely of its own management. If it hasn't chosen already.

Furthermore, if its $16 million in assets were liquidated and invested to fund operations with perhaps 5% targeted for return, the CWPT's staff and overhead could be scaled down a little to live within those means in perpetuity. It could then completely dispense with any human donors, collecting grants from other organizations and using government programs to accomplish its mission.

What I mean is this: CWPT can continue its job of facilitating the investment of other organizations' money in land purchases and in buying restrictive covenants (easements) from owners without any member help or input and without individual donations or oversight.

Look at the transactional addenda to the IRS 990s, linked above. To prevent the public or its members from knowing exactly what its annual transactions are, the Trust frames all of its descriptive addenda in this language:

Description: Land

Name of Buyer: Various

Helpful? It's absolutely pervasive - no exceptions. Good luck decoding the transactions.

The Trust's members and potential members either don't care about its operations ("Gotta save some battlefield land somehow!") or they have already been written off by management.

Neither scenario makes me want to join or contribute.