ACLU vs ACLU Foundation: which is more efficacious?
January 29, 2017 8:03 AM   Subscribe

As I understand it, the ACLU Foundation is what pays for litigation and the ACLU's monies go towards advocacy. My instinct would be to donate to the foundation, but it occurs to me that it may be more effective for my modest donation to go to advocacy and trust that the foundation is sustained by large donations. Does anyone know how to determine the most efficient way to direct small donations in this case?

I do know that monthly donations are, in general, preferred because they allow for longer-term budgeting. The foundation has no monthly donation option, which was what lead me to wonder if it's sustained by large donations and bequests.
posted by hoyland to Law & Government (8 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

There may be an unusual limitation to donations to the charitable arm this year. DJT has taken the extremely unusual step of filing for the 2020 race now, which may limit the use of charitable funds to oppose his actions because he is a candidate.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 8:34 AM on January 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I don't have any particular familiarity with the ACLU's internal accounting, but I have worked for a political non-profit that had both a c3 (like the ACLU Foundation) and a c4 (like the ACLU) side. If the ACLU operates anything like the way the organization I worked for, then they would definitely prefer that you donate to the c4 side.

In my experience, the c4 side of organizations like this is basically an accounting fiction in order to allow the organization to take tax-deductible donations (and sometimes also grants from charitable foundations) for work that charitable organizations are allowed to do, while still using non-tax-deductible donations for advocacy and other political work that is forbidden to charitable donations. Legally there are two distinct organizations, but they share staff, office space and all or most of the board of directors. It's basically just two different pots of money from which they can pay for their work. From a legal standpoint, there is nothing preventing the ACLU from taking your c4 donation and using it for litigation, but they are forbidden from taking your c3 donation and using it for lobbying or electoral work. (This is what Trump is hoping to gain by filing early for 2020, if he's a candidate, opposition to his policies begins to look like campaigning against him, which c3 funds can't be used for).

I would only donate to the ACLU Foundation if you really want the tax writeoff.
posted by firechicago at 8:50 AM on January 29, 2017 [17 favorites]

I would only donate to the ACLU Foundation if you really want the tax writeoff.

Another thing to consider is whether you have access to workplace donation matching! My workplace will match at 100%, so I typically donate to the charitable arms of advocacy organizations to get more bang for my buck.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 9:18 AM on January 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A 501(c)(3) non profit (whether it engages in policy and advocacy must eschew political activity); a 501(c)(4) (whether it engages in direct services or not) may engage in political activity. SO ACLU Foundation (a 501(c)(3) providing education and direct litigation services) may never engage in political activity, but ACLU (a 501(c)(4) membership organization providing education, advocacy and organizing services) may engage in political activity.

Likewise, Planned Parenthood Federation of America (501(c)(3)) providing health care may never engage in political activity, but Planned Parenthood Action Fund (501(c)(4)) may engage in political activity.

There are no restrictions on donors giving to both the 501(c)(3) and its affiliated 501(c)(4), but donations to the former are tax deductible and donations to the latter are not. Generally, funds cannot be intermingled between the affiliated (c)(3) and (c)(4) but there can be shared staff, shared office space (and expenses). Each entity can give money to the other, although money from the (c)(3) to the (c)(4) must never be used for political activity/electioneering and very very limited lobbying activities. There is little to no restriction for money the other direction.

(My source is the materials from my last tax refresher seminar for my 501(c)(3) and its affiliation (c)(4) membership organization).
posted by crush-onastick at 10:22 AM on January 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

I also work for an organization that has both a c3 and a c4. Donations to the c4 are usually harder to get, because there's no tax write-off, and therefore more needed and valued. The c4 also has more flexibility in what it can do with its funds -- anything the c3 can do plus the political and lobbying work. If you don't need the deduction, I would definitely give it to the c4. That's generally what I do if I can.
posted by gingerbeer at 6:10 PM on January 29, 2017

Oh, hey, I used to work for the ACLU in development (fundraising.) It's been many years, but firechicago and crush-onastick covered all the details. The one exception: the ACLU and the ACLU Fdn have two separate boards. Office space and staff were all shared. (Except maybe the clerks and a few other legal staff?)

I worked for the SoCal chapter so we dealt with more money, more high-profile supporters, and more egos than the average non-profit*, but it's all basically the same. Because of the tax deduction, the Fdn had the swankier chicken dinners with $500 tickets and $15k tables while the ACLU might have $30 tickets and $500 tables. Rich people often supported both events** but we were big enough to have support for the c4 side.

Also, the chapters share a certain percentage of donations with national. We always preferred to get donations directly and send national their share, rather than wait for national to send us ours. And you can always earmark your donation for specific projects if you wish.

*True for many non-profits here.

firechicago's comment may sound a little cynical but i think it rings true.
posted by Room 641-A at 10:05 PM on January 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

If I can piggyback on the tax-deductible issue, I can donate more money to a 501(c)(3) than to the (c)(4) and have it effect my bottom line equally. So would organizations that have (c)(3)s and (c)(4)s prefer $100 for the (c)(4), or $150 for the (c)(3)?
posted by benbenson at 12:02 PM on January 30, 2017

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