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Apocalypse Later? Philanthropy and Transparency in an Illiberal World

March 02, 2017

The post below by Foundation Center president Brad Smith introduces a new, year-long series of posts on PhilanTopic that will address major themes related to the center’s work: the use of data to understand and address important issues and challenges; the benefits of foundation transparency for donors, nonprofits/NGOs, and the broader public; the role of storytelling in conveying the critical work of philanthropy; and what it means, and looks like, to be an effective, high-functioning nonprofit or changemaker. We hope you’ll join us on this journey, and we welcome your thoughts and feedback.

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Open-Data-470x352How long will it be before nonprofit transparency takes its place alongside diceros bicornis on the endangered species list? Hopefully never, but in a world that's growing more technologically sophisticated and more illiberal, I'm beginning to think that if it's not Apocalypse Now, maybe it's Apocalypse Later.

The value of transparency

Transparency has been a boon to the philanthropic sector, making it possible for organizations like Foundation Center, Guidestar, the Urban Institute, Charity Navigator, and others to create searchable databases spanning the entire nonprofit and foundation universe. Our efforts, in turn, contribute to responsible oversight, help nonprofits raise funds to pursue their missions, and fuel online platforms that enable donors to make better giving choices. Transparency also enables foundations to collaborate more effectively, leverage their resources more efficiently, and make real progress on critical issues such as black male achievement, access to safe water, and disaster response. The incredibly rich information ecosystem that undergirds the American social sector is the envy of others around the globe — not least because it gives us a clear view of what nonprofit initiative can accomplish, how it compares and contrasts with government, and how social, economic, and environmental issues are being addressed through private-public partnerships.

Where we are today

Federal law — U.S. Code, Title 26, Section 6104 — stipulates that public access to Form 990, a federal information form that tax-exempt organizations are required to file annually, must be provided promptly on request at the exempt organization's office or offices, or within thirty days of a written request. However, exempt organizations don't have to provide copies of their Forms 990 if they make these materials broadly available through the Internet, or if the IRS determines that the organization is being subject to a harassment campaign.

In 2015, Carl Malamud, the Don Quixote of open data, dragged transparency into the digital age when he brought suit against the Internal Revenue Service to force it to make the 990s of a handful of organizations that had been filed electronically available as machine-readable open data. Malamud won, and, somewhat surprisingly, the IRS then did more rather than less to comply with the order: as of June 2016, all Forms 990 filed electronically by 501(c)(3) organizations are available as machine-readable open data through Amazon Web Services. As such, they can be downloaded directly in digital form and processed by computers with minimal human intervention. The development represents a victory not only for Malamud but for the Aspen Institute’s Nonprofit Data Project, which has toiled for years to make 990s more accessible. The idea, of course, is that free, open data on nonprofits will enable more innovators, researchers, and entrepreneurs to use the data in ways that help make the sector more effective and efficient. Since Malamud won his case, the IRS has posted some 1.7 million Forms 990 as machine-readable open data.

Philanthropy in a shifting world

The increasingly illiberal world in which we find ourselves was not made in America: it is a worldwide phenomenon born of globalization, income inequality, technology-driven unemployment, the unprecedented movement of migrants and refugees, and the specter of terrorism. The democratization of information driven by social media and the Internet also has been accompanied by distrust of traditional media, the narrowing of the space in which civil society organizations operate, and growing attempts to restrict thought and behavior. Author William Gibson (credited with inventing the term "cyberspace") presciently (if darkly) described a world we probably all recognize today in his 2003 reflections on George Orwell: "A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and quotidian degrees of madness. We may be able to see what's going on more quickly, but that doesn't mean we'll agree on it any more readily." Indeed.

The bitter, divisive 2016 presidential election in the United States saw information from the 990s of the Clinton and Trump foundations used to support allegations of influence peddling, self-dealing, and the like. The resulting bad press and subsequent investigations by the New York State Attorney General's office caused both foundations to eventually announce that they planned to wind down all or some of their activities.

At the same time that foundations are being subjected to more scrutiny, we see a growing number of high-net-worth individuals turn to alternatives that require little or no transparency in exchange for the tax advantages they receive for their charitable giving. The most common of these are donor-advised funds administered by community foundations or investment firms such as Fidelity, Vanguard, and Schwab. Community foundations do file 990 tax returns, so information about each grant they award is reported and made available to the public, though without the identity of the donor. With the charitable gift funds sponsored by investment funds, however, information on individual grants remains invisible. Then there are newer, hybrid structures like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the LLC formed by the co-founder of Facebook and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to "advance human potential and promote equal opportunity." There is no public disclosure requirement for the tax returns of LLCs, which means that any details we learn about the grants made by CZI will be what Zuckerberg, Chan, and their colleagues choose to tell us.

The first step?

So what are the implications of all this for the social sector in the Unites States? The media (traditional and social) has been on fire with stories about the Trump administration's intent to remove information on issues like climate change from government websites. In response, universities and others are rushing to download as much of that data to non-government servers as possible. In the same vein, it would not be difficult for the IRS to suddenly stop posting 990 tax returns as open data, especially given all the "trouble" they caused during the presidential campaign. This might be met by another Malamud-style legal challenge but that would take time to unfold. And if successful, this time around the IRS might comply by releasing only a handful of specific 990s rather than all those that have been digitally filed.

"Destroying" the Johnson Amendment

President Trump also has announced his intent to "destroy" the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 provision (named after then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson) in the U.S. tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Repeal of the provision could open the way for huge amounts of so-called dark money — donations from corporations, unions, and individuals aimed at influencing the outcome of elections — to find its way into 501(c)(3) organizations. Unlike 501(c)(3) nonprofits and foundations, the current recipients of such funds — primarily 501 (c)(4) and (c)(6) nonprofits — are not required to disclose their donors.

I am not a lawyer and may be out on a limb here, but overturning the Johnson Amendment would require an act of Congress — and all the partisan wrangling and constituent pressure that entails. Yet, if Congress decides to do so, it is not inconceivable that the administration, with the assent of Congress, could then remove the public disclosure requirement for Forms 990 in order (depending on your point of view) to: 1) protect donor privacy as an exercise of the First Amendment right to free speech; or 2) make it more difficult to "follow the money" when it comes to political campaigns.

If this were to happen, it is not entirely clear which constituencies would emerge to fight for the continued provision of Forms 990 as public information. Foundations, in particular, are not universally enthusiastic about having their grants and other information in the public domain for a variety of reasons (including privacy, journalistic scrutiny, and wariness of being swamped by applications for funding). What's more, in recent conversations with foundation leaders, I've heard concerns that when it comes to controversial issues such as immigration or charter schools, having their information made more visible could make them targets for harassment. And, of course, neither nonprofit organizations nor foundations enjoy filling out 990s, which like a lot of tax forms are long, time-consuming, and expensive to complete. Yes, organizations like the National Council of Nonprofits, Independent Sector, the Council on Foundations, and the Philanthropy Roundtable might rally to defend broad public access to Forms 990, but only if their members were firmly behind them.

Transparency and hope

Born in 1956 out of hostile McCarthy-era hearings accusing foundations of supporting "un-American activities," Foundation Center has worked for many years with the Internal Revenue Service and other organizations to build a public information system for philanthropy. GuideStar has done much the same for nonprofit organizations. The cornerstone of these systems has been data contained in the Forms 990. If access to these forms were reduced or eliminated, the transparency of the entire social sector — and with it the promise of greater efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation — would be an obvious casualty. It also would strengthen the position of those in government and the social sector, both here and abroad, who, for whatever reason, believe the need for donor privacy outweighs the value of transparency. Russell Leffingwell, a Republican banker and trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, said it best in 1952 in his testimony to the Cox Commission declaring that his foundation "should have glasspockets." Leffingwell went on to say:

I think [foundations] are entering into the most difficult of all fields....They are going right straight ahead, knowing that their fingers will be burned again, because in these fields you cannot be sure of your results, and you cannot be sure that you will avoid risk. If the boundaries of knowledge are pushed back and back and back so that our ignorance of ourselves and our     fellow man and of other nations is steadily reduced, there is hope for mankind, and unless those boundaries are pushed back there is no hope...."

At the end of the day, the social sector is about hope and the unshakable belief that the world can be made better by our efforts. We live in an age, illiberal or not, in which our mission to serve the public good to the best of our ability is powered by technology that allows us to share knowledge as never before. And knowledge is rooted deeply in transparency. Apocalypse later? We can't let that happen.

Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center. As recently reported by Nonprofit Quarterly, the National Council of Nonprofits has launched a campaign to get nonprofits to sign a Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship that calls for preservation of the Johnson Amendment in its current form.

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