Private Giving is Essential to Charities – and Free Speech

November 29, 2022 | PUFP Staff

Today marks just the tenth anniversary of Giving Tuesday, but the values the holiday celebrates are as old and as American as the United States itself. For that, we can thank Americans’ generous spirit and our constitutional rights to join and support causes without restriction or surveillance.

To this day, Americans are among the most generous donors to charities in the world. The United States ranked third in the Charities Aid Foundation’s most recent World Giving Index. In the past, America has topped the list, which surveys 120 countries across the globe.

The report notes the numerous ways Americans pitch in to help others and improve their communities. Many donate money to charities and causes they believe in, while others volunteer their time, and still others set out to form new organizations that tackle challenges new and old. Some remarkable Americans do all these things at once.

So deeply ingrained in the American character is the propensity to form and join organizations that these groups took center stage in Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal exploration of American political life, Democracy in America.

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite,” observed the French political scientist in 1840. “Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.”

“Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States… Thus the most democratic country on earth is found to be, above all, the one where men in our day have most perfected the art of pursuing the object of their common desires in common and have applied this new science to the most objects,” de Tocqueville concluded.

While charitable giving and group membership remain vibrant in America, they also face numerous challenges. Authors in recent decades, including in well-known works like Bowling Alone, have wondered if civic engagement is on the decline due to a lack of participation in civic organizations. Today, nonprofit organizations that speak out about public issues also face demands from politicians in both parties to publicly expose the names and home addresses of their supporters, putting them at risk of harassment and retaliation for their beliefs.

These threats to charitable giving and donor privacy are also threats to free speech. If groups that call out government corruption or take a stand on a heated issue can be forced to reveal their members’ personal information, those members can be targeted for reprisals and bullied into silence by those who disagree. Soon, the many watchdog organizations and citizen groups that Americans rely on to be their voice in public discourse will fall silent too.

One way to protect and invigorate charitable giving is to safeguard Americans’ personal information when they donate to nonprofits. That’s one reason fourteen states have passed the bipartisan Personal Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits government officials from demanding or publishing the personal information of supporters of nonprofit organizations. And it’s why nonprofits representing Americans of all beliefs urged the Supreme Court to protect the privacy of their members in last year’s Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta decision.

Politicians that wish to silence groups that criticize their agendas and take a stand on policy issues won’t go away easily, however. Legislation like the DISCLOSE Act in Congress, copycat efforts in the states, and a recent push by prominent politicians to turn the IRS loose on nonprofits that speak about public policy are just a sampling of the many threats we face today. As is always true of our most precious liberties, eternal vigilance is the price we must pay to preserve our privacy and freedom of speech.

That’s why, this Giving Tuesday, we honor not only our responsibility to help others and improve the world around us, but also our right to give privately and safely. Please join us in our efforts to protect the spirit of private giving for all Americans.