Wednesday, July 24, 2024
73.0°F

Mischaracterizing public nonprofits hurts communities

by Adam Jespersen, Montana Nonprofit Association
| June 27, 2024 12:00 AM

As the executive director of the Montana Nonprofit Association, a membership association that supports more than 850 organization across the state, I’m dismayed by multiple recent incidents of political leaders and influencers casting local public charities across Montana as “dark money” groups and as organizations at the center of broader political flashpoints.

The nonprofit sector functions on trust – trust from families and households that organizations will respond to needs, trust from funders and supporters that resources are being stewarded well, and trust from the broader community to recognize that nonprofits can and should lean into spaces where government and business can’t or shouldn’t.

When local public charities, who are run by and supported by your neighbors, friends and colleagues, are cast as something they are not and as something nefarious and disreputable, trust is eroded and the social contract between nonprofits and their community is put at risk.

Montana nonprofits broadly fit into two major mission categories, those that provide essential services to those in need, such as food security, housing, childcare, healthcare and education, and those that build and protect the Montana we love, including trails, preserving open spaces, museums and theaters.

These nonprofits are known as “public charities,” formally classified under the federal tax code as 501c3 tax-exempt organizations. In Montana, these organizations are the bedrock of our communities, employing Montanans, serving Montanans, and standing alongside the public and private sector in rounding out the richness, beauty and humanity that truly make our communities special places to call home.

Contrary to the notion of secrecy implied by the term "dark money," 501c3s (public charities) operate with high levels of transparency and accountability and are required to be nonpartisan in law and purpose, committed to serving the common good. Every tax-filing for a 501c3 is publicly available and details all revenues, expenditures, programs, major donors, and board members for that organization. We are subject to rigorous financial reporting requirements and oversight mechanisms to ensure ethical conduct.

True “dark money” groups are not classified as 501c3 public charities and are not subject to the same rigorous transparency, nor are they required to maintain nonpartisanship in their activities. Such oversimplified and incorrect labels not only misconstrue the essential role nonprofits play in our state's civic life, but also undermine the integrity of the vital work we do.

At MNA we know how essential accuracy and transparency are to fostering public trust, accountability, and community support. Not everyone is attracted to, or even agrees with, the stated mission of every public charity, but that doesn’t diminish the inherent value of that organization’s work or their commitment to accountability and good-faith mission activity.

To paint an organization as something wholly different simply because you may not believe in the work that they do is disingenuous and harmful to the work of the sector as a whole, which in turn is harmful for all Montanans.

We face major issues in our society and in communities. Public charities are at the center of finding solutions by working in ways that center innovation, belonging, humanity and compassion. Our work is neighbors helping neighbors with integrity and care.

Casting it otherwise undermines the remaining civic trust we have with one another and diminishes our ability to collectively rise to meet the challenges before us.

Adam Jespersen is the executive director of the Montana Nonprofit Association.