Dark Money: When You Don’t Like the Agenda, Philanthropy’s Power When You Do

The Chronicle of Philanthropy is certainly one of my go-to sources for philanthropy news, and I appreciate it making a concerted effort to include a wider range of views. That’s why Alex Daniels’ January 14 piece, “Ga. Senate Runoff Shows Philanthropy’s Power to Mobilize Voters,” caught my eye. The philanthropic sector, no matter how hard we try, still has biases that show up in how we talk about charitable dollars.

When it comes to private donations made to election-related efforts, the “dark money” label and its sinister implication is often attached to conservatives’ activities and dollars.

However, when the money comes from progressive foundations, as the article describes, we call it “Philanthropy’s Power.”

Daniels writes: “Foundations have spent about $996 million on ‘democracy’ issues over the past two years … That number, which will surely grow as information on grants continues to roll in, includes a breadth of activities beyond voter education and mobilization, such as civic education and support of journalism.”

The article continues with a quote from Hahrie Han of Johns Hopkins University: “Nonprofits can potentially have a bigger impact than spending by parties to promote their candidates.” No hint of anything sinister here. In fact, the results of the Georgia run-offs are attributed to the work done by the state’s (c)(3) and (c)(4) organizations.

I give credit to Mr. Daniels and other Chronicle writers for not using the “dark money” phrasing themselves. It tends to show up in quotes and commentary from our sector colleagues and others seeking to politicize our language. If we’re serious about bringing our country together, our own philanthropic community should consider how we describe each other’s actions. We should start by looking beyond Left and Right in how we assess giving, and by avoiding double standards.

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