Lawmakers risk harming US charities, violating Americans’ privacy amid investigations of foreign influence

As the first presidential debates of the 2024 election cycle get underway, there is growing concern among House Republicans about the potential of foreign donations to U.S. charitable organizations being misused for political activities.  

While Congress was out for August recess, members of the House Ways and Means Committee sent an open letter to nonprofits—entities considered tax-exempt by the IRS—requesting information on the “existing rules and regulations governing them and foreign sources of funding” as well as “policy changes Congress should consider.”

While their concerns may be valid and these questions are important, especially given recent media reports detailing specific cases of abuse, lawmakers must be careful not to chill charitable giving by generous Americans that supports the most vulnerable in our communities. There may be a need for a policy scalpel, not a sledgehammer.  

Ways and Means Republicans are no doubt aware that the charitable sector has long represented a strong and effective tradition of Americans voluntarily joining together to address challenges and uplift communities throughout our country. Our nation’s vibrant landscape of nonprofit organizations includes everything from local food banks to national charities tackling our homelessness and mental health crises to international aid and disaster relief groups.

It is important to remember that nonprofits, both 501(c)(3)s and 501(c)(4)s, can and do engage in issue advocacy as a crucial counterbalance to a large, powerful government. Whether it is a pro-life group, an education reform organization or a fiscal responsibility watchdog, nonprofits play a key role in helping U.S. citizens and government officials alike better understand our government’s policies and how they affect Americans’ lives. And, those wielding political power have an obligation to hear from their constituents who care deeply about a diverse range of causes and communities.

As lawmakers consider ways to identify whether foreign nationals are abusing certain charitable avenues to advance political goals, their focus must remain on protecting the constitutional rights of Americans to free speech and free association. As the U.S. Supreme Court once again upheld in its 2021 decision Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta, this includes the right to give to nonprofits anonymously.  

We know full well that charitable donors give privately for good reasons like religious traditions or a desire to keep the attention on the charities doing the good work. But it’s impossible to ignore that we live in a highly divided society. The rampant cancel culture we face can destroy the lives of those who support unpopular causes or unconventional approaches to solving our nation’s problems. Generous Americans across the ideological spectrum have faced job loss, harassment and even threats of violence for supporting nonprofits willing to stand up for their values and beliefs.  

Forcing the disclosure of their names and personal information is an overly broad and potentially dangerous method of exposing a handful of bad actors abusing the nonprofit ecosystem for political purposes. If there is evidence of wrongdoing — that should be investigated and prosecuted under current law. The last thing Americans need—especially those who rely on the generosity and services of charitable organizations—is for government officials to inadvertently stifle charitable giving in a hunt for those doing wrong.  

Recent reports suggest charitable giving is already down, and many American families are still struggling thanks to high food and energy prices. Nonprofits are doing the hard work on the ground to ensure that American communities stay strong and our neighbors can make it through these difficult times. Punishing all donors who wish to remain private will result in fewer dollars going to those who need our help the most right now. As the Supreme Court said in its 2021 decision upholding Americans’ right to donor privacy, “Each governmental demand for disclosure brings with it an additional risk of chill.”

U.S. charitable donors have weathered political targeting by the state of California, discrimination against conservative groups by President Obama’s IRS, and more recent government leaks of our citizens private information. Even amid these attacks by those who disagree with their approach or worldview, donors and nonprofits continue to voluntarily work together to transform lives and improve our communities. For this work to continue, the constitutional rights of American donors must be upheld by lawmakers. They cannot be cast off as collateral damage—because too many futures depend on their freedom to give generously and privately.  

Elizabeth McGuigan is the vice president of policy and government affairs at Philanthropy Roundtable.

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