Many “political” organizations have 501(c)(4) arms that claim to allow their donors to remain anonymous. Donors who don’t mind being disclosed often give to independent expenditure committees (“super PACs”), which publicly disclose all of their donors to state or federal officials. Those who prefer not to disclose their name, address, occupation, and employer will often give to the related 501(c)(4) organization.

Of course, there are tradeoffs for groups that use a 501(c)(4). Namely, there are limits on how much money they can spend on influencing candidate elections and the organization must be careful how it makes its “ask” for money.

A 501(c)(4) focused on federal elections usually has an easier time navigating the law to maintain the anonymity of its donors. Generally speaking, as long as the 501(c)(4) does the math right and does not solicit contributions to fund a specific advertisement, it will not have to disclose its donors to the public. This is true whether it pays for advertisements directly or whether it donates some of its funds to a super PAC.

In state elections and ballot measures, this is not always the case. State laws often require far broader disclosure of donors and state enforcement agencies have been going to court to enforce their rules.

There are three scenarios in particular where disclosure is more likely to be required (depending on state law). First, if the 501(c)(4) is funding communications to support or oppose a ballot measure, it will likely be required to register as a ballot measure committee and disclose its donors. Second, if the communications will refer to specific candidates and are made fairly close to an election (particularly if the communications are aired on television), then state law may well require disclosure. Third, if the communication expressly urges a vote for or against a specific candidate, then disclosure may also be required.

On the other hand, messages about issues, with no reference to specific candidates, likely will not require donor disclosure. For example, ads that say “Call your state representative and tell him to vote against higher taxes,” “Learn more about how the state senate can protect the environment,” or “It’s time for the state to balance its budget,” will hardly ever require disclosure.

How can donors know whether their names will be disclosed? There are four questions you should ask to determine how anonymous your contribution really will be.

  • First, ask whether the organization will be involved in state or local elections—since the federal election has just passed, it is likely that organizations will be turning their attention to state and local races now.
  • Second, if the organization is involved in state races, does it have segregated accounts for funds earmarked for purposes other than influencing state races? 
  • Third, if you want to support state efforts, will the messages refer to candidates or ballot questions? If not, then disclosure is unlikely.
  • Fourth, if the donation will fund communications that support or oppose ballot measures or candidates, then there is a good chance state law will require disclosure.