Donor Privacy: A Constitutional Right for American Givers

By: Elizabeth McGuigan
Published: Nov 2021
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Executive Summary

  • A vibrant civil society relies on charities and their donors.
  • The ability to retain one’s privacy in their giving is a constitutionally protected right.
  • Donors may choose to remain private for numerous reasons, including religious tradition, modesty or fear of reprisal in our divided society.
  • This privacy is key to fostering giving in a time when donors across the ideological spectrum may face threats for their support of causes or organizations.
  • When considering disclosure rules, clear distinctions must be made between charitable association and political activity.

Introduction

The Philanthropy Roundtable supports the right of Americans to give and associate anonymously. This freedom is a pillar of our vibrant civil society. Our nation’s vast network of charitable organizations and individual givers encompasses poverty-relief groups, cultural and educational institutions, faith communities, business and labor organizations and other formal and informal entities that support a wide range of causes important to individuals and communities. This diverse network allows Americans to address societal challenges that government cannot, will not or should not solve.

The vitality of our civil society depends on preserving the tradition of private giving for charitable and civic purposes. Individual givers may wish to remain private for numerous reasons, including religious tradition, modesty or a desire to avoid unwanted solicitations. In today’s divided society, givers may also wish to avoid potential threats and retaliation for giving to causes that are, or may become, controversial or unpopular with individuals in positions of power.

Such motivations are not new. The ability to give privately has played a critical role throughout American history, from abolitionism and women’s suffrage to the civil rights and LGBTQ rights movements. Privacy in association fundamentally protects the voice of those with minority views. Yet, regulators and lawmakers in states throughout the country and in Congress are considering imposing restrictions on private giving, at a time when technology and social media make forced disclosure even more dangerous to givers, their loved ones and their livelihoods.