The Common Good Advanced through Donor Privacy
Private giving is a prevalent part of American culture. Many align with the conviction and tradition –routinely giving generously and privately.
If you have given in ways that “do not let your left hand know what your righthand is doing” – which Jesus speaks of in Matthew 6 – you may have experienced that special joy that comes from giving a gift with no expectation of public acknowledgement or accolades. Giving such gifts may be a check on the sincerity of our hearts. Practicing private giving helps us reject the desire to only give when we are noticed.
Many nonprofits have benefited from private gifts – fueling countless acts of charity and advancing causes for the common good.
To maintain this time-honored practice and respect donors’ privacy, most nonprofits keep gifts confidential.
The Threat to Privacy
Today, some government officials threaten to undermine the tradition and conviction of private giving. And they are working to change the law so that many opportunities for private gifts are no longer possible.
Some activists want the government to track all gifts to charities, numerous other causes, and even churches, presenting unnecessary risk that this private information could be misused or leaked.
Most religious nonprofits must already file annually the IRS Form 990, plus a detailed list of confidential major donor information on a Schedule B. Those Schedule Bs are supposed to remain private and not be disclosed to anyone outside the IRS. But the California Attorney General requires all nonprofits that want to fundraise in the state to provide the government with theirSchedule B every year. What’s more, the Attorney General’s office has leaked that information like a sieve over the internet. This is problematic in two ways. First, when private donor information becomes public, donors are subjected to unwanted solicitations from every direction. Second, when private donors support nonprofits that take positions on issues that sharply divide public opinion, the donors could be threatened and harassed by ideological opponents.
Thomas More Law Center is a perfect example of the latter problem. It is a 501(c)(3) that defends religious liberty, moral and family values, and the right to life. As a result of the Law Center’s legal advocacy, its employees, clients, and supporters have already experienced intimidation, hate mail, and even death threats. The organization challenged the California Attorney General’s disclosure mandate with Alliance Defending Freedom’s help in order to protect the privacy of its donors. Oral arguments were heard by the Supreme Court on April 26; the Court’s ruling is expected near the end of June.
Although churches do not yet face the same explicit threats as nonprofits in this context, because they do not have to file the Form 990, the pressure continues to build. Groups like Church Clarity have characterized churches as organizations that “enjoy tremendous public subsidies, as they are recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt religious organizations.” It is telling that these groups frame churches as enjoying “subsidies” versus providing innumerable benefits to the community.
It is reasonable to think that, based on the current trajectory of governments trying to track donations to nonprofits, targeting donations to churches could become a reality. And although California’s law only attempts to track information on nonprofit donors who give more than $5,000 or 2% of a nonprofit’s annual revenue, a simple lowering of the bar would include countless additional private gifts and givers.
The following scenario is foreseeable, if the government continues to expand its reach in tracking charitable giving:
Imagine writing a check to your local church as an offering on a Sunday morning. And when you arrive home, you give an online gift to a local marriage-affirming ministry. Then later, you find out that your state government tracked your gifts and published those gifts online, along with your name and address, for the whole world to see.
If current patterns of government action are not curbed, we could end up with this exact scenario. Such government-imposed tracking of gifts would undermine many Americans’ conviction to give without letting your left hand know what your right is doing. And it could hurt American culture in numerous ways.
Real Harms of Donor Privacy Violations
Sadly, the significant and harmful consequences of government threats to private giving do not have to be imagined. They have played out in real life:
- During the Civil Rights Movement, Alabama and other states attempted to force the NAACP to share the names and addresses of its members with the government. As a result of this breach of confidentiality, NAACP lost more than 50% of its supporters in southern states over a two-year period. The organization understandably did not want its members to be harassed or harmed for their support during such contentious times. So, it fought to protect the anonymity of its members – all the way to the Supreme Court – and won.
- The former CEO ofMozilla Corporation, Brendan Eich, donated $1,000 to support Proposition 8 – a 2008 California measure that received support from a majority of California voters and reinforced the definition of marriage as a union of one man and one woman. After Eich’s donation was made public, he was “canceled.” Activists put heavy pressure on Mozilla, and Eich was forced to resign the CEO position he worked hard to achieve.
There are many ways current cultural tensions would increase if donor privacy is undermined.
While many don’t yet appreciate the significance of this threat, it has the potential to affect nonprofit ministries throughout the country. Maintaining the vitality of your ministry requires an awareness of these types of threats and an understanding of your rights.
What Can You Do? Uphold Donor Privacy
Government should not be in the business of tracking private donations to nonprofit organizations.
Protecting donor privacy in the law preserves the rights of all Americans to humbly seek the common good and to live quiet, faithful lives. Those who decide to “not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” when giving should continue to have this freedom. How we give to charities and causes –including whether that gift is public, known only to the recipient, or entirely anonymous – should be a private matter that each decides for themselves.
By supporting donor privacy, we also protect religious freedom, advance the common good, and support the diversity of ideas.