“Independent” Sector?

An ActBlue clue

Independent Sector is, by its own description, “the only national membership organization that brings together a diverse community of changemakers at nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs working to strengthen civil society and ensure all people in the United States thrive.” It serves as “a vital meeting ground” for “the full breadth of the charitable sector”—the independent, tax-advantaged, nonprofit charitable sector—including through its Upswell conferences, convening, and other networking events.

ActBlue is a political action committee formed to support Democrats. Its affiliated ActBlue Civics supports social-welfare organizations under Internal Revenue Code § 501(c)(4), which can engage in some political activity, and its ActBlue Charities supports § 501(c)(3) charities, which by law cannot “do” politics. By its own terms, the ActBlue online “platform is available to Democratic candidates and committees, progressive organizations, and nonprofits that share our values for no cost besides a 3.95% processing fee on donations.”

Consciously, explicitly, proudly, and effectively, ActBlue financially furthers a particular point of view—Democratic and progressive. It cannot fairly be considered to represent the “the full breadth of the charitable sector.” It is not really, and doesn’t pretend to be, very independent at all.

Differential Levels of Trust

Earlier this month, Independent Sector released its third annual report of survey findings that explores trust in American nonprofit organizations and philanthropy. Of those respondents who expressed a low level of trust in nonprofits, given reasons for that low level include “[m]ismanaged funds and high overhead” and an “[i]nappropriate political agenda,” according to the report, Trust in Civil Society.

The Independent Sector survey, conducted in partnership with Edelman Data & Intelligence, also found that 44% of registered Democratic voters said they have high trust in philanthropy, an appreciable 10% higher than the general population’s level of high trust. Thirty-four percent of registered Republicans have high trust in philanthropy, the same level as the general population’s level. And 29% of independents have high trust in philanthropy, 5% lower than the general population.

Relatedly, according to the separate 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer released last January, among Democrats in particular, trust in non-governmental organizations was at 57%—the same as last year. Among Republicans, it was at 38%, down 11% from last year.

Democrats certainly seem to trust nonprofitdom more than those with different political preferences.

Nonprofitdom, Partners, and Politicization

According to a recent tweet from the Independent Sector’s Upswell—and, one suspects, also relatedly—“[t]his year’s Upswell wouldn’t be possible without the support of our incredible sponsors!” And the logos of eight supporters are shown, including the avowedly and aggressively partisan-Democrat ActBlue. Elsewhere, Upswell lists both A/B Charities and ActBlue as “Legacy Partners.”

While admittedly only a small clue, is that evidence of a truly “Independent” Sector, and/or can it be considered to represent a truly “independent” sector—to be trusted, highly or not, by either a Republican or an independent to be pursuing the charity for which it has its tax-advantaged status?

There are reasons for some Americans’ declining level of trust in nonprofits, and they likely include politicization and/or an increasingly perceived ideological imbalance. As establishment philanthropy defends its position in American society, it would do well to monoculturally tend to more than just one flank. There’s a price to nonprofit politicization and it is—and may unless something is done, continue to be—paid by charity.


This article originally appeared in the Giving Review on May 31, 2022.

Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is CRC’s senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving, providing analysis of and commentary about philanthropy and giving. He…
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