The Needless Assault on Private Philanthropy
By Bob McClure
Americans are an incredibly generous people. Despite this deep and all-encompassing recession, charitable giving in the United States topped $307.6 billion in 2008, the second-highest total on record.
Who received it? According to the Giving USA Foundation, recipients included religious groups ($106.8 billion), education ($40.9 billion), charitable foundations ($32.6 billion), health organizations ($21.6 billion), the arts ($12.7 billion), international affairs ($13.3 billion), the environment ($6.5 billion), and miscellaneous other causes ($23.8 billion).
Who gave it? Individuals gave the most ($229.2 billion), while the rest came from grant-making foundations ($41.5 billion), charitable bequests ($22.6 billion) and corporate giving ($14.5 billion).
And what do these groups all have in common? They are all privately held philanthropic entities that believe in using their dollars to make the lives of others better. Indeed, the word philanthropy comes from the Greek root meaning "love of mankind." Compare that to the so-called "stimulus" plan that quickly devolved into nothing more than a political slush fund for Congress.
So who could possibly want to disrupt something so effective and compassionate as private philanthropy? "Greenliners," that's who.
Now, with the tax season upon us, many Americans will again ponder their past and future year-end giving. Some are inspired by the yuletide spirit, others by the desire for more tax deductions.
Whatever their motivation, however, there's one wish virtually all donors share: the desire to choose where their gifts go. Indeed, if there's one guiding star in the philanthropic firmament, it's respect for the donor's intent.
Surely donors deserve the right to choose where their money goes. After all, most gifts represent the bounty from the fruits of their labor - what's left after life's necessities have been purchased, payrolls have been met, or federal, state, and local taxes have been paid.
Granted, some choices may seem eccentric. Yet here in Florida there are also heart-warming examples of how personal experiences ignited a passion for a cause. Wendy's founder Dave Thomas, adopted as a child, gave much of his wealth to his foundation to support adoption and foster care. When one of Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino's sons was diagnosed with autism, Marino started a foundation to support autism research. There are countless examples of such generosity by businesses, foundations and individuals across the country.
In each of these instances, the desire to give arose from a very personal experience or a defined need in a community. Private philanthropy is more effective than a government program precisely because it is so often intensely personal for a donor who may be pursuing a particular passion.
Yet because charitable giving is tax deductible, and because many charitable groups are tax-exempt, some advocates of ever-larger government now argue that donors are playing with money that otherwise would go to the government and, therefore, that philanthropy needs political oversight beyond the careful auditing already performed by taxing authorities.
In particular, the so-called "greenliners" not only want to insure that preferred groups receive what they deem as a fair share of the giving, but that any boards of directors governing the donors and recipients include the requisite numbers of those preferred groups.
Florida's greenliners have also targeted corporate philanthropy, and their logical next step would be an attempt to second-guess the philanthropy of individuals and charitable foundations. Imagine the chaos if private philanthropy is saddled with all-encompassing regulations.
When donors are no longer free to choose the recipients of their charity, their zeal to give will diminish. That, in turn, could cause individuals and groups that now benefit from private philanthropy to become more dependent on the government. Imagine if bureaucrats got their fingers into private philanthropy. Then again, perhaps that's the ultimate (but covert) goal of the greenliners and other forces. They must not succeed.
(Bob McClure is President/CEO of the James Madison Institute, a non-partisan policy-research center based in Tallahassee, Florida.)
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