Left-wing political activists want to destroy America’s long tradition of private philanthropy.
By Jeremy Tedesco, Opinion Section of The Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2022
Americans have always been free to give to nonprofit causes they believe in, but left-wing political activists are determined to limit that freedom. Considering these activists’ record of successfully convincing corporations to do their bidding on a host of issues, everyone who supports the American traditions of free speech, free association and privacy should be concerned.
Unmasking Fidelity, a loose coalition of fringe groups, recently delivered a list of demands to Fidelity Charitable, which manages a donor-advised fund through which account holders can direct contributions to their favorite nonprofits. According to its website, Fidelity Charitable distributed $9.1 billion in 2020, making it the nation’s largest grant maker.
On the list of Unmasking Fidelity’s demands was a call for Fidelity Charitable to disclose five years’ worth of its contributions to 10 targeted organizations, including the Family Research Council, Turning Point USA and my employer, the Alliance Defending Freedom. These are organizations with which the activists disagree on a variety of hot-button issues. Unmasking Fidelity is also demanding that Fidelity Charitable impose viewpoint-based litmus tests on the charities and causes its account holders can support. Those litmus tests would handicap conservative groups and advocacy.
No matter what you think about the issues of the day, everyone should oppose this name-and-shame censorship. A politicized philanthropic culture, in which an outside activist’s demands trump a donor’s intent—and even expose donors to harassment—is dangerous for people of every political stripe.
All of us, but perhaps especially Fidelity Charitable (given the diverse views held by their donor-advised fund account holders), should advocate a healthy philanthropic culture. Such a culture is marked by at least two critical features. First is respect for donor intent. Donors must be free to give to any cause or interest they choose. In this way, charitable giving contributes significantly to a flourishing, open marketplace of ideas, which is essential to maintaining a free society and driving societal improvements.
Second is respect for donor privacy. Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two cases on this very issue. In Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta, which was consolidated with my firm’s case, Thomas More Law Center v. Bonta, the court struck down a state donor-disclosure regulation because it violated the First Amendment rights of charities and their supporters. Requiring nonprofits to disclose their donors not only exposes existing donors to the loss of privacy and the threat of harassment; it also discourages charitable giving and participation in the marketplace of ideas.
That’s precisely what Unmasking Fidelity hopes will happen. The group wants to destroy the country’s unique charitable culture, which has made Americans the world’s most generous population. And if a philanthropic leader like Fidelity Charitable capitulates, it will accelerate that destruction, as many more institutions will likely follow its lead.
Those who care about philanthropic freedom aren’t about to sit idly by and watch Unmasking Fidelity strip Americans of their rights to free speech, free association and privacy. That’s why more than 1,800 financial advisers, investment professionals and nonprofit leaders have signed a letter urging Fidelity Charitable’s leadership to reject Unmasking Fidelity’s demand that it serve as a roadblock to charitable giving.
Instead, Fidelity Charitable should stand by its commitment to be “cause neutral” and to refrain from limiting “grantmaking . . . to specific organizations based on political, religious, or philosophical grounds.” The path forward for Fidelity Charitable and other institutions that offer donor-advised funds is to permit account holders to donate to any recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit, to protect donors’ privacy, and to refrain from imposing viewpoint-based litmus tests on donors’ charitable choices.
Despite efforts by radicals like those at Unmasking Fidelity, there is broad support for this approach. As the justices observed in Bonta, parties that “span the ideological spectrum” filed briefs urging the high court to protect donor privacy—“from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Proposition 8 Legal Defense Fund; from the Council on American-Islamic Relations to the Zionist Organization of America; from Feeding America-Eastern Wisconsin to PBS Reno.” Even the Southern Poverty Law Center—a primary agitator for expanding cancel culture to charitable giving—filed a brief supporting donor privacy.
Public advocacy is for everyone, not only those able and willing to weather abuse. And donors have good reason to fear abuse. In our present age of cancel culture and social media mobs, too many are quick to threaten, harass and intimidate those with whom they disagree. Rather than drive a wedge where there is common ground by adopting Unmasking Fidelity’s divisive and corrupting proposals, Fidelity Charitable should continue to work for the good of all its account holders, and society at large, by vigorously protecting philanthropic freedom.
Mr. Tedesco is senior counsel and senior vice president of corporate engagement for Alliance Defending Freedom.