Misconceptions About ‘Dark Money’

Guest blogger Adam Meyerson of The Philanthropy Roundtable makes the case for the right to confidentiality of donors giving to think tanks and other non-profits. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

A long legal tradition protects the rights of Americans to make charitable contributions without publicly disclosing them. This right to confidentiality in charitable giving is grounded in our constitutional freedom of association, and it is one of the most important elements of philanthropic freedom.

In a landmark 1958 Supreme Court judgment, the court held that the state of Alabama could not compel the NAACP to reveal the names and addresses of its members because doing so would expose its supporters “to economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of public hostility” and thereby restrain “their right to freedom of association.” (see NAACP v. Alabama)

Our tax code similarly protects the confidentiality of individual contributions to public charities. In their 990 tax returns, public charities have to disclose their largest contributors, but this is for purposes of tax administration only. The Internal Revenue Service is strictly forbidden by statute from revealing these names to the public or even, with a very limited number of exceptions, to other government agencies.

Donors do have to disclose publicly their contributions to private grant-making foundations, which in turn have to disclose their grants to public charities. These transparency requirements help to protect against self-dealing and to make sure that foundation grants support genuinely charitable organizations.

Donor-advised funds, America’s most rapidly growing charitable vehicle, receive donations from individuals and then make grants to other public charities on the recommendations of the original donors. Like foundations, the sponsors of donor-advised funds are required to disclose the grants they make to other charities; this helps ensure that the grants are going to charities and not to for-profit or partisan political operations. But consistent with America’s historic confidentiality protection for individual donors to public charities, the sponsors can keep private their own donors as well as those donors’ individual grant recommendations.

This protection is sometimes misunderstood. For instance, conservative critics of the Tides Foundation, a liberal-left donor-advised-fund sponsor, have called it a system “to evade transparency.” Liberal critics of DonorsTrust, a donor-advised-fund sponsor for “organizations that promote liberty,” have labeled it as a “secretive funding network” and “dark-money ATM.” But the right to privacy enjoyed by contributors to donor-advised funds is no different than the right to privacy that governs the overwhelming majority of charitable giving.

There are multiple reasons to give privately. Many anonymous donors want to protect themselves from unwanted solicitations, to protect their children from knowledge of their family’s wealth, or to be able to visit prospective grantees and “kick the tires” without anyone knowing they are a funder. Still others, like the 1950’s NAACP donors, want the freedom to support controversial organizations without fear of reprisal or ostracism.

So-called “dark money” illuminates our free society.  

Adam Meyerson is President of The Philanthropy Roundtable and a board member of the State Policy Network, a capacity building service organization for America's free market, state-focused think tank community. This guest blog is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared on the SPN website.