Through the past years, a single phrase has become a favorite in the argument over donor privacy and funding sources: ‘dark money.’
Just hearing those words conjures up images of grinning robber barons meeting in dim, smoke filled back rooms, exchanging briefcases of cash and laughs over the fate of those they are exploiting. (Or something like that.)
A favorite tactic of the liberal left (who seem to think Republican or conservative causes can’t get a single dollar that hasn’t been touched by a Koch brother), a simple accusation of an organization receiving ‘dark money’ causes speculation and suspicion, tarnishing the organization’s reputation. This suspicion often leads to legislative or ballot attempts at shedding light on such ‘dark money,’ usually focusing on making donor lists public for the sake of transparency.
Which, is a terrible, terrible idea.
Transparency is for governments, privacy is for people.
Nonprofit donor privacy is a crucial part of a free and philanthropic society; thus, it is unnerving to see so many people advocating for transparent donor lists. Even conservatives have become a part of this movement; after all, ‘transparency’ is a term capable of swaying policy debates.
The importance of donor privacy traces its roots back to the 1950s, when the government of Alabama attempted to force the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to hand their supporter lists over to the state. The struggle of privacy versus ‘transparency’ went to court, and in 1958, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of donor privacy as constitutionally protected in NAACP vs. Alabama.
Why was Alabama requesting such records such a despicable act? Think about the era. This case took place during the battle for civil rights, and it is no secret that the government was in constant collision with civil rights activists. Do you think Alabama would have treated identified NAACP supporters like upstanding, wonderful citizens? I highly doubt it.
In fact, the judgement of the 1958 case stated it best when it explained that forcing the organization to hand over supporter lists had the possibility of subjecting supporters “to economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of public hostility,” and could restrict “their right to freedom of association.”
So, what does the origin story have to do with the donor privacy battle of today?
Well, simply put…everything.
A quick Google search reveals countless stories of people being targeted over their political contributions (which are public, a fact that ‘dark money protesters’ love to brush over), personal beliefs, and associations. People have been arrested, targeted by the IRS, physically endangered, and have lost their jobs over such things.
Privacy is what protects freedom of association and of speech from philosophical opponents who wish to silence those with whom they disagree. It is what gives people the peace of mind to be able to fund the causes they are passionate about while knowing that, unless they publicize it, such contributions can’t be personally traced back in an effort to harm them.
What if the last person to terrorize an abortion clinic had access to the list of people who helped fund the clinic? What if an at-will employer discovered that some of his employees supported philanthropic causes to which he was vehemently opposed? What if every charitable or philosophical move you made was easily traced by those in your life who disagree with you the most?
Don’t be distracted. In reality, political donations are already publicized, so any sinister ‘dark money’ is already transparent. In the philanthropic world, all money is dark money; this only seems to be considered a problem when the cause being funded is one you don’t support.
Dark money isn’t the problem; a lack of privacy, however, will lead to a society fearful of the repercussions of their support, and send American philanthropy as we know it crashing to the ground. Realize that people will support causes you disagree with, and support their right to do it anyway.
Privacy, after all, is the only thing that will lead to a generous, flourishing, and ideologically diverse society.