Another Victory for Privacy and Nonprofit Advocacy in Virginia

February 29, 2024 | Alex Baiocco

In yet another victory for nonprofit advocacy and personal privacy rights in Virginia, convoluted legislation aimed at exposing nonprofit organizations’ members and supporters has once again suffered defeat in the General Assembly.

Bills that would undermine free speech and privacy have become an annual tradition in Richmond. Fortunately, such proposals have been unsuccessful, and this year, bipartisan opposition doomed the threat to nonprofits and their supporters.

Two bills introduced this legislative session, Senate Bill 78 and House Bill 276, would have forced nonprofits to either avoid communicating with the public about policy issues or enable their ideological opponents to target their members and supporters. Nearly identical legislation was introduced and defeated in 2022 and 2023.

Under S.B. 78 and H.B. 276, issue advocacy that merely refers to a candidate in the lead-up to an election would have required a disclaimer identifying the organization’s top three donors. Many sitting lawmakers are also candidates, and nonprofits commonly communicate about elected officials’ positions on policy issues central to their missions. Such top-funder disclaimer requirements for so-called “electioneering communications” are intentionally designed to apply to speech that does not urge voters to vote for or against candidates.

In other words, issue speech and supporters of issue-focused nonprofits, not campaign advertisements and donors to campaigns, were the targets of this legislation. In fact, the two bills in Virginia would not have required candidates to name any donors in their campaign ads. The end result of this scheme? Nonprofit advocacy would be chilled, and nonprofit supporters would be subject to unwanted and unwarranted scrutiny.

In addition to “electioneering communications,” nonprofit advocacy about ballot referenda would also have triggered the donor exposure disclaimer requirements in S.B. 78 and H.B. 276. Unfortunately, efforts to expose donors to nonprofits speaking about issues on the ballot are trending in states across the country. With ballot measures increasingly addressing contentious issues such as abortion access and marijuana legalization, many nonprofits will be forced to sit out of important debates in order to protect the privacy of their supporters.

While nonprofits in Virginia are safe from privacy-invasive and speech-chilling mandates for now, H.B. 276 was continued to the 2025 session by a voice vote in the House committee to which it was assigned, and S.B. 78 was narrowly defeated on the Senate floor. The threat is likely to reemerge in 2025, at least in the House of Delegates, but bipartisan and cross-ideological opposition to this year’s threat is a promising indication of growing awareness of the importance of nonprofit privacy protections in Virginia.

In fact, in 2022, Virginia enacted the Personal Privacy Protection Act with strong bipartisan support. That law prohibits government agencies and officials from demanding or releasing sensitive information about a nonprofit’s members, volunteers, or supporters.

The failure of efforts in 2023 and 2024 to undermine Virginians’ right to give to the causes of their choice privately continues the welcome trend of policymakers reaching across the aisle to uphold privacy protections vital to preserving the important role of nonprofits in public debate and education.