Big Secret Money for Charity vs. Big Secret Money for Elections

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November 1, 2012; Source: ProPublica

ProPublica’s Justin Elliott reminds us that while tax-exempt entities are getting lots of publicity for their involvement in the presidential election, they are just as influential in local campaigns. Elliott describes the activity of several groups: Americans for Prosperity, a “dark money” group supported by the Koch brothers, is going against a cap-and-trade effort in New Hampshire; the American Future Fund is fighting against labor union fundraising in California; and the American Federation of Children is making a push in favor of school vouchers in Florida and Wisconsin.

Although the three examples cited by Elliott are strongly conservative, the lesson for all of us should be that it is difficult, if not impossible, for democracy to function if secret moneyed interests get to manipulate the levers of our electoral system. When big money gives secretly—that is, without disclosure, via politically engaged 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations—they are turning elections into auctions for those with the most money to spend.

But aren’t we as a society—and as a sector—dependent on big money? Don’t nonprofits rely on big money donors for some of their programs? Isn’t big money, as some contend, “buying” nonprofits through charitable donations, protected from disclosure by the nonprofits’ 501(c)(3) status?

There’s a big, obvious difference. When big donors contribute to nonprofit programs, they are funding charitable goals, not elections. They are funding the work of charities, not secretly moving the votes of citizens for president, members of Congress, governors, mayors, and others. If you can’t see the difference between big donor involvement behind the scenes in nonprofit programs versus big donors supporting candidates and other election outcomes, just open your eyes.—Rick Cohen