Public debate over the Tax Reform Act of 1969 stirred up some basic questions about and criticisms of the role of private philanthropy in America. Several public figures decided it would be a good idea to examine and address some of these controversies with a blue-ribbon commission. It was a suggestion from John Rockefeller III that sparked creation of the panel, and his family provided $200,000 to organize and fund its investigation. More than 700 other individuals and organizations also helped underwrite the Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs.
Rockefeller invited Aetna Insurance chairman John Filer to lead the commission of two dozen prominent Americans, and it became popularly known as the Filer Commission. The group commissioned 85 studies and convened many meetings over a two-year period. In 1975 it issued a 240-page report full of data and recommendations.
The commission described a “third sector,” distinct from government and business, that plays a unique role in American life. “Private support is a fundamental underpinning for hundreds of thousands of institutions and organizations,” said the report. “It is the ingredient that keeps private nonprofit organizations alive and private, keeps them from withering away or becoming mere adjuncts of government.” The commission defended tax deductibility of contributions made to charity and suggested self-policing and consistent rules to protect the integrity and positive social effects of independent giving.
At a time of rumblings against independent giving, the Filer Commission’s work is credited with heading off possible political intrusions into philanthropy—thus protecting the right of Americans to direct their money into private solutions to public problems.
- Report of the Filer Commission, archives.iupui.edu/bitstream/handle/2450/889/giving.pdf?sequence=1
- Eleanor Brilliant, Private Charity and Public Inquiry: A History of the Filer and Peterson Commissions (Indiana University Press, 2000)