Think Donor Disclosure Doesn’t Hurt You? Think Again.

September 8, 2021 | PUFP Staff

Across the United States, the call to force charitable and nonprofit organizations to disclose the names and home addresses of their donors to the government for inclusion in an online database continues. The ongoing narrative from politicians on both sides of the aisle is that forced donor disclosure is necessary, that it will improve transparency and eliminate corruption in government.

To be clear, we’re not talking about putting donations to political candidates online. That information is already reported to the government and posted on websites. We’re talking about donations of all sizes, from $25 to $10,000, to causes and charitable groups that Americans support and that are doing good work in communities nationwide and around the world to advance our values.

Requiring nonprofit and charitable organizations to report the names and home addresses of their donors to the government does three things: 1) it strips Americans of their First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of association, 2) it puts good people who want to participate in public discourse about issues of the day in harm’s way, and 3) it severely limits the ability of nonprofit organizations to help those in need or to provide important information to the general public. Donor disclosure is not a remedy for government corruption. It’s a tool intended to silence millions of American voices and eliminate them from public debate.

Who Disclosure Really Hurts

Americans who want to safely participate in public debate. Millions of Americans across the political spectrum choose to donate their money to causes or charities whose mission they support. This allows them to join their voices with other individuals who share the same beliefs and as a result amplify their voices. With forced donor disclosure, nonprofit organizations will be required to report the names and home addresses of their donors for inclusion in a publicly available government list. These lists will make it easy for activists to target and harass those with opposing views. And those who want to avoid being called out and intimidated for their beliefs will no longer support these charities and causes, and their voices – along with an entire side of the debate – will be silenced. Requiring organizations to disclose their donors, whether they donate $25 or $10,000, infringes on the First Amendment rights of all Americans.

Causes and charitable organizations that do good work across the country. Legislative proposals including the DISCLOSE Act and the Honest Ads Act place considerable – and costly – reporting requirements on nonprofit organizations, from the Sierra Club and National Rifle Association to local churches and food pantries.

Under the DISCLOSE Act, organizations that speak out about issues that impact the lives of those in their communities and who spend $10,000 or more on what the bill’s sponsors define as “campaign disbursements” (this could include a mailer or an ad on social media) would be required to disclose to the government the names and home addresses of their top donors. Countless donors give to support an organization as a whole, and they may not be aware of every activity that the organization is engaged in. They also may not be aware that their generous gift is putting a target on their back. For many groups that advocate for public policy on a daily basis, the amount of a donation that triggers disclosure is a small amount in the grand scheme of things – and that threshold will likely be reduced in time to force even more organizations to disclose (and silence) their donors.

For charitable and nonprofit organizations that utilize the internet to reach large audiences and keep them informed about issues that matter to them and their communities, the Honest Ads Act imposes rigid disclaimer and disclosure requirements that both the organizations placing paid ads and the platforms accepting those ads would need to follow. American organizations working to effect political or social change will struggle to adhere to the disclosure requirements, and, as a result, their speech will be chilled as their voices are heard by fewer and fewer people.

These complex and burdensome disclosure requirements ultimately put charitable organizations and causes in the position of using their limited resources to either retain lawyers to ensure compliance or to remain silent on important issues to avoid being forced to disclose their donors. Bottom line: the voices of charitable organizations and causes doing good work will be silenced under these intense disclosure requirements.

Vulnerable populations and communities served by local charitable and nonprofits organizations. Located in Atlanta’s business district, the Peachtree-Pine Homeless Shelter houses an average of 500 to 700 men, women, and children each night. City officials have targeted the shelter for closure and sought to claim the land it sits on via eminent domain to build a combined fire and police station on the site. In 2014, the shelter was behind on its water bill, owing almost $580,000. Several anonymous donors contributed enough to enable the shelter to pay its bill. The shelter’s director told local media the reason the donors wished to remain anonymous: “Any time a donor appears and is public with us, that donor gets attacked.” When organizations such as the Peachtree-Pine Homeless Shelter are forced to disclose the names and home addresses of their donors to the government, the men, woman, and children who need a safe place to sleep at night will not have one.

Taxpayers who otherwise would have to shoulder the costs of services provided by charitable and nonprofit organizations. From providing a safe place to sleep at night to researching and providing information on public policy issues, across the nation there is an array of charities and causes doing good work in our communities.

In Ohio, the Buckeye Institute – a bipartisan independent research and educational think tank – researched the pros and cons of expanding their Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act in 2013. While the Administration claimed that expanding the program would help their state budget, Buckeye’s data showed that expanding Medicaid would actually cost Ohioans more tax dollars and it would not improve the health outcomes of those enrolled in the program. The Buckeye Institute shared their findings with the Ohio General Assembly, who relied on Buckeye’s arguments rejecting Medicaid expansion to fight back.

Without the generosity of Americans who donate to groups and nonprofit organizations that are providing information to the public, taxpayers could be on the hook for higher taxes when the government pushes bad policies.

Supporting Nonprofit Organizations Isn’t Sinister, It’s Our Right

Regardless of one’s political, ideological, or religious beliefs, we need to protect the right of every American to support the causes and charities they believe in without fear of harassment or intimidation. Requiring charitable or nonprofit organizations to report their donor lists to the government violates our First Amendment rights and puts people at risk for harm – especially in today’s highly-charged political climate.

Americans have the right to keep their nonprofit donations private. If politicians are serious about rooting out corruption, instead of punishing law-abiding citizens that donate to causes and charities (and all the people served by those organizations), they should focus on corruption in government and ways they can be more transparent to the public – not the other way around.