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Philanthropy Under Attack
Legislative proposals that undermine donor anonymity join increasingly negative rhetoric, jeopardizing Americans’ willingness to give to charity
By Jack Salmon
Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. 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.
—Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America” When Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America in the 1830s, he marveled at the thriving civil society made up of charities, religious organizations and voluntary associations. It was this experience that inspired him to publish “Democracy in America.”
Today, the United States remains head and shoulders above all other nations when it comes to the success and vibrancy of its charitable sector. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, nonprofit contributions made up 5.6% of gross domestic product in 2022. In other words, the value of contributions to GDP from American nonprofit organizations in 2022 was roughly equal to the entire economies of Sweden, Denmark and Norway combined. The level of annual giving is equally impressive. In 2021, total contributions were $485 billion, primarily from individual donors, according to the Giving USA 2022 Annual Report on philanthropy.
In fact, according to one 2016 analysis, Americans give twice as much to charity (as a share of GDP) as our northern neighbors in Canada, roughly three times as much as the British, five times as much as the Italians and the Dutch, and nine times as much as Swedes.
The generosity of charitable donors is a vital lifeline for churches, college scholarships, poverty-relief organizations, health and scientific research, the arts and museums, to name a few institutional beneficiaries.
Tocqueville didn’t just marvel at the success of vibrant civil society in America, however. He also worried that if government were to grow in size and scope, the vibrancy of civil society would be at risk. He warned of the risks if government overextended its role into the lives of individuals and into the operations of voluntary associations:
It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd. . . . It does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.
Heeding these warnings is just as important today as it was almost two centuries ago. The philanthropic sector faces several challenges from government intervention that threaten to shake up our pluralistic democracy and robust civil society.
Americans’ right to give anonymously and to associate anonymously is a vital pillar of civil society. History offers an abundance of examples of times when government actors threatened the privacy of donors, but their privacy was ultimately protected under the Constitution.
This right has been foundational in the American advancement of civil rights. For example, during the same decade that Tocqueville was traveling in America, President Andrew Jackson attempted (unsuccessfully) to force postmasters to expose the identities of those who supported the abolitionist movement in order to publicly ridicule, pressure and threaten them.
Similarly, in 1958 the governor of Alabama ordered the NAACP to reveal the identities of its members and donors. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state of Alabama could not force the NAACP to disclose this information, as to do so would infringe on core First Amendment rights by exposing members and donors to “economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion and other manifestations of public hostility.”
Within the highly polarized and divided society of the U.S. today, donor privacy remains a vital component of philanthropic freedom. What’s more, the importance of donor privacy is an issue that crosses party lines. For example, donors to the right-leaning Americans for Prosperity Foundation faced death threats after California forced the organization to disclose donor information. The foundation subsequently sued the state, and when the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, organizations that filed amicus briefs in support of the foundation included left-leaning groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and Human Rights Campaign.
Sadly, we are seeing burgeoning attempts by policymakers to introduce legislation that would erode donor privacy, expose donors to harassment and disincentivize charitable giving. Politically motivated attacks on donor privacy are often driven by a belief that policy-oriented nonprofits and donors illegitimately interfere with politics.
Legislative proposals aren’t the only area in which we see attacks on these vital pillars of civil society. We are also witnessing a shift in rhetoric regarding philanthropy—a shift that parallels the rise of populism in recent years.
During his campaign for Senate last year, now Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) suggested seizing the funds of nonprofit organizations that he disagrees with. In an interview on Fox News, Vance said, “Why don’t we seize the assets of the Ford Foundation, tax their assets, and give it to the people who’ve had their lives destroyed by the radical open borders agenda?”
This rhetoric doesn’t just come from populists on the right—progressive populists have also been attacking philanthropy in recent years. Robert Reich has described the growth of charitable organizations as a threat to the “democratic expectations of the political equality of citizens.”
Increasingly negative rhetoric in reference to the philanthropic sector is dangerous precisely because it undermines the trust that motivates Americans to give freely and generously. In 2022 56% of Americans said they trusted nonprofits, down a statistically significant 3 percentage points from 2020 (59%). Trust in philanthropy edged down from 36% to 34% over the same period.
Recognizing the value of philanthropy for a thriving civil society starts with respecting the freedom of speech, freedom of association and the rights of donors to give freely and anonymously.
Robust institutions of civil society are too important for us to stand aside as populist interests seek to erode these fundamental institutions. If we are to keep the Tocquevillian ideal alive, we must refrain from imposing new regulatory restrictions and government burdens on the philanthropic sector. We should seek to enhance, not decay, philanthropic institutions of civil society.