To Do No Harm, Protect Donor Privacy

Imagine you make a donation to a nonprofit organization that inspired you enough to want to support their good work. Now, imagine this gift became public information. For most people, this would be uncontroversial. In this time of “cancel culture,” however, where people are “canceled” – publicly lambasted, ostracized and shamed – for various reasons, the organization you supported yesterday could be declared unacceptable tomorrow.

If your donation appears on the list of supporters of a “canceled” nonprofit, who knows what could happen to you, your reputation, and your business and personal relationships?

There is currently a renewed push for nonprofits to be forced to disclose their donors, both from Washington, D.C., and authorities in various states. This is not a new idea; it has gone on for decades. In 1958, the NAACP fought Alabama in the U.S. Supreme Court (and won) in an effort to stop the Southern states from forcing the NAACP to disclose its donors’ identities, out of fear of violent repercussions against its supporters.

Opponents of donor privacy argue that it allows “dark money” to be donated to organizations without a trace. Writing in National Review, Bradley A. Smith, chairman of the Institute for Free Speech, dismisses the argument as a distraction: “’Dark money’ is merely a pejorative label for nonprofits – such as the NAACP, the Chamber of Commerce, and Planned Parenthood – that may legally make campaign contributions, whose donors are private, and whose political speech is therefore both limited and independent from candidate campaigns.”

Donor privacy is not a means of allowing “dark money” to flow secretly to organizations. In fact, donor privacy allows individuals to support the nonprofits they believe are doing good work. It preserves freedom of association in civil society and protects donors both from undeserved repercussions and becoming sitting ducks for unwanted charitable solicitations from others. There’s a reason many subdivisions post signs at the neighborhood entrance: “No Solicitation.”

As the Philanthropy Roundtable explains, unwarranted incursions into private donations “will chill the exercise of First Amendment freedoms.” Donor privacy, on the other hand, “protects those who choose to give anonymously for a variety of other organizations of good reasons, including deeply held moral or religious beliefs, a sense of humility, a wish to lead a more private life, and the desire to minimize solicitations from other organizations.”

In other words, forcing nonprofit organizations to disclose their donors will have unintended repercussions for donors as well as for the nonprofit sector.

The issue is far from partisan. As these threats to Americans’ First Amendment rights of free speech and free association come under attack, groups that typically do not associate are working together to defend their donors’ right to privacy. Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union announced it had filed an amicus brief with the NAACP and other groups – in a case brought by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation – “urging the Supreme Court to protect the privacy rights of nonprofit donors across progressive and conservative organizations.”

Tennessee, South Dakota, Iowa and Arkansas are the most recent states to enact laws to protect donors to nonprofit organizations from being exposed by state agencies. Other states, such as North Carolina, are considering bills that will protect donor privacy.

The cancel culture, unfortunately, is likely to linger; those who employ this tactic have realized its power. That makes it ever more important that individuals who choose to contribute to nonprofit organizations are protected from unwanted and undeserved attention in an age where there is little privacy left.

Kennedy Atkins is Donor Relations Manager at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Established in 1991, the Foundation is a trusted, independent resource for voters and elected officials. The Foundation provides actionable solutions to real-life problems by bringing people together. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (June 25, 2021). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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