Make No Mistake: Nonprofits Need the Charitable Deduction
A public letter by the executive director of the Triad Foundation
Some claims just can’t be left unchallenged.
The recent assertion by some members of the nonprofit community that the charitable deduction isn’t that important to charity is one of those claims.
Opponents believe the government knows how to spend money better than private citizens, that the public sector can pick winners and losers in the charitable sector, and that monolithic solutions trump diversity and experimentation.
Whether a private donation comes from a billionaire or a middle-class American, the charitable deduction is an important incentive and benefits the recipient far more than it does the giver.
A person who gives away $100, even if you subtract the maximum deduction of $35, is still giving away $65 for the good of someone else. And the ultimate beneficiary of that generosity, whether seated at a soup kitchen or at the local ballet, still enjoys what the full amount of the gift can provide.
But we have been over this debate about who really benefits from the charitable deduction many times before, so why are we revisiting this issue over and over?
Does anyone really believe that capping or eliminating the charitable deduction will bring about a national economic revival?
Instead, it is becoming increasingly apparent that attacks on the charitable deduction are based on the beliefs that the government knows how to spend money better than private citizens, that the public sector can pick winners and losers in the charitable sector, and that monolithic solutions trump diversity and experimentation. If we choose to go down this rocky and treacherous path, we send a clear message to our country that a strong civil society isn’t really that important when our government has other problems.
Those who are attempting to divide the sector suggest that some charitable gifts are “better” than others. So let’s be clear that donations to the Family Reading Partnership or an art museum or science center are not about putting food in the stomachs of hungry families.
But they may well be about feeding the undernourished souls of those whose daily lives are marked by poverty, uncertainty, and fear.
Such gifts may also provide a vitally important educational and cultural opportunity for those in the community who might otherwise be denied that experience.
It is foolhardy to risk these donations, or donations to any other number of important community charitable causes, by limiting or eliminating the charitable deduction.
The nonprofit community has responded to our nation’s challenges for well over 200 years. The charitable deduction continues to be a powerful incentive for those who contribute to the many and diverse members of that community—to the arts, to education, to environmental causes, to faith communities, to human services—to all the causes that individual donors believe will make their communities, their country, and their world a better place.
We cannot allow this difficult economic time to alter forever our approach to encouraging strong civic participation through private giving and philanthropic investment. We must continue to make our voices heard to ensure that our political leadership values private giving and charity as much as those whom they serve do.
Joanne Florino, executive director, Triad Foundation, Ithaca, New York.