No Labels: No Transparency?

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December 18, 2010; Source: New York Times | New York Times Columnist Frank Rich adds his voice to the cacophony of pundits dumping on one of the nation’s newest 501(c)(4) organizations, the bipartisan/nonpartisan/neither-left-nor-right, No Labels, which seeks to lead a movement that will reach across the aisle in a bipartisan manner to accomplish the people’s business in Washington.

Rich clearly doesn’t think much of the new movement, suggesting it sounds “like a progressive high school’s Model U.N.” He particularly excoriates its focus on bipartisan dialogue rather than the fact “that both parties are bought off by special interests that game the system and stack it against the rest of us.”

Rich concludes, “In its patronizing desire to instruct us on what is wrong with our politics, No Labels ends up being a damning indictment of just how alarmingly out of touch the mainstream political-media elite remains with the grievances that have driven Americans to cynicism and despair.”

A wide range of political heavyweights showed up for the inaugural program of No Labels, including Republicans such as Florida’s Charlie Crist and Delaware’s Mike Castle, moderate Democrats such as New York’s Kristen Gillibrand, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, and the self-consciously nonpartisan New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

Apart from those working in government, many of the group’s members have nonprofit pedigrees, including David Walker of the Comeback America Initiative, Third Way founder Jon Cowen, and Brookings Institution scholar William Galston. Also involved are Brink Lindsey of the Kauffman Foundation and Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and wife of the imam behind the controversial proposed mosque in Lower Manhattan. These are just a few among their ranks.

Our question comes from the nonprofit perspective: If an organization wants to restore rationality and civility in American politics, shouldn’t one of its first steps be to make a commitment to openness and transparency regarding its funding sources?

In the past election, the 501(c)(4) structure was the major organizational form through which undisclosed special interests turned the campaigns into competing hyperbolic screeds. Although a (c)(4) isn’t required to reveal who is paying its tab, No Labels could certainly break the mold and do so.

But, according to Salon.com, No Labels isn’t interested in putting labels on its funding sources. Though it reportedly had raised $1 million in December, and some of its leaders are among the likely funders, such as Dave Morin, an early member of the team that led the launch of Facebook, No Labels isn’t talking, even though its website calls for the full disclosure of funders who payfor political ads. As the self-positioned advocate for political civility, wouldn’t No Labels be a good role model for 501(c)(4)s and for all political groups by disclosing its sources of funding?—Rick Cohen