Opinion: Protect Michigan nonprofit donors’ privacy

Sean Parnell
In spite of the politics, a group of school kids visiting the Capitol, lay on the floor of the Rotunda while Demonstrators make noise and chant as The Michigan Senate and House of Representatives consider bills during "lame duck" session, in Lansing on Dec. 12, 2018. Dosins encourage kids to lay on the floor, which gives them an unparalleled view of the spectacular ceiling of the Rotunda -- and today, an interesting view of the protesters.

Anonymous donations to charities and other nonprofits are a deeply ingrained part of our nation’s culture of giving, stemming from reasons as varied as religious obligation, a sense of humility, a desire to avoid future solicitations, limiting family strife, and countless others.

Over the next few weeks of the Christmas season residents of Michigan and around the nation can expect to hear news reports of anonymous donors dropping gold Krugerrands into the iconic red kettles of the Salvation Army, as has happened every year at this time for decades.

Unfortunately not everyone respects the longstanding norm of privacy for nonprofit givers, in particular politicians and activists seeking to target those who disagree with them. In response to this threat, Michigan’s Legislature should take the lead in protecting nonprofit donors by passing Senate Bill 1176, the Personal Privacy Protection Act.

The bill would do nothing to roll back Michigan’s laws mandating disclosure of campaign contributions or inhibit investigations of fraudulent practices by nonprofits. The only thing the Personal Privacy Protection Act does is prevent state and local officials from abusing their power by demanding the donor lists of charities and other nonprofits, as well as prohibit disclosure of personal information connected to a nonprofit that may come into government possession.

To see how important the protections offered by the Personal Privacy Protection Act are, imagine a nonprofit that is working for criminal justice reform by educating the public, holding rallies, and conducting original research on the issue. While many might applaud this group and want to give to it, it’s also bound to find itself in conflict with those who either support the status quo or have harshly different views on the topic.

The Personal Privacy Protection Act would ensure that politicians couldn’t impede the group by, for example, demanding to know its donors before it allows the organization’s experts to testify at legislative hearings, or deny government contracts to the group’s financial supporters. The law would also prevent a state officer from releasing donor names to the public in an effort to encourage intimidation and other forms of retribution against a nonprofit’s supporters.

There is a long history of people using donor information to have people fired, their businesses boycotted, and worse. This was why the Supreme Court in 1958 ruled in a landmark First Amendment case that the state of Alabama could not require the NAACP turn over its membership lists. Given the current political climate it should hardly come as a surprise that many donors will hesitate to give to a group that others see as controversial if their donation will be made public – and it seems everything is controversial to someone these days.

Michiganians are no stranger to anonymous giving, whether it’s the tens of millions of dollars given to support the Kalamazoo Promise or the numerous small anonymous gifts made through sites like GoFundMe.com. The Personal Privacy Protection Act ensures these and countless other acts of kindness can remain private if the giver wishes, while doing nothing to undermine Michigan’s laws regarding disclosure of campaign donations or punishing fraud by nonprofits. If Michigan wants to continue to encourage philanthropic giving, passage of this bill should be a priority.

Sean Parnell is vice president of public policy for the Philanthropy Roundtable.