Encouraging Events in Donor Privacy

Charitable donors who want to decide for themselves whether to be public or private in their giving have had a lot to be disheartened by in recent years. Bills have been filed in many state legislatures to limit the right of givers to stay out of the public eye.

For example, a bill was introduced in Maine’s legislature during its 2019 session that would have required every nonprofit in the state to disclose all of its donors. Goodbye privacy and anonymity. Bills like these are typically aimed at “outing” donors to organizations supporting or opposing political candidates. Most are so poorly drafted, though, they could force charities of many types to publish all of their donors, for instance if they just mention a state legislator’s name in a newsletter.

There are also efforts that blatantly target specific groups, such as legislation in Connecticut aimed at forcing nonprofit charter-school operators to disclose major contributors. The intent in such cases is to embarrass or disadvantage issue opponents.

While it’s troubling to see these sorts of bills regularly pop up around the country, it’s cheering to realize that nearly all of them, so far, have failed to be enacted. And the occasional bill that does make it through to signing has often been amended in order to protect the privacy of charitable donors.

The main reason efforts to expose donors have so far frequently failed is because of the “strange bedfellow” coalitions, crossing partisan and ideological boundaries, that recognize the importance of charitable giving in a democracy, and want to protect it from manipulation for political gain. During the hearing for the Maine bill, the committee chair opened his comments by noting that it was “not every day” that the state’s free-market think tank, the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the state Chamber of Commerce joined to oppose a bill.

These boundary-breaking alliances are common when charitable donor privacy is at stake.

In state after state, groups and individuals from right, left, and center have united to protect anonymous giving.In a few states like Iowa, Michigan, and Mississippi there have even been bills aimed at pro-actively protecting donor privacy. While only the Mississippi legislation made it all the way through to become law, there was broad bipartisan support for the bill in Iowa (it was voted out of committee on a 20-1 vote), and in Michigan the donor-privacy legislation passed both chambers with the support of groups like the American Cancer Society and the Michigan Catholic Conference before being vetoed by the governor.

It’s certainly true that charitable donor privacy is under attack from many quarters today. But it’s also true that there remains significant support across the ideological spectrum for anonymous philanthropy. Many elected officials understand the stakes behind this issue and are willing to vote to protect the right to keep giving private. For that, we can be heartened. 

Published in the Fall 2019 issue of Philanthropy magazine.

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