The Crucial Importance of Independent Private Giving

As Karl Zinsmeister writes in this issue, “the priceless American innovation of voluntary private giving is now under ferocious, concerted, coordinated attack.” Wealthy givers are maligned in the media for funding the rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral, and for paying off the student loan debts of Morehouse University graduates. The New York Times editorial page even criticized Andrew Carnegie for funding the building of over 1,600 public libraries across the country.

It’s time to fight back, writes Karl. The assault on private generosity is an assault on voluntary action, on the American tradition of problem-solving outside of government. Ultimately it is an assault on the free society.

Voluntary private giving is central to our character as a nation. And it is central to our freedom—in two important ways.

To begin with, charitable giving is an expression of freedom. The generosity of the American people is grounded in our respect for the individual, for voluntary associations, and for the can-do spirit of citizens who step up to solve problems without waiting for government. And a vigorous private sector generates the wealth, income, and creativity that makes philanthropy possible. 

Charitable giving also protects our freedom. Independent private giving is absolutely fundamental for religious and intellectual liberty. It sustains our churches and synagogues, our colleges and universities, our museums and laboratories, our health clinics and homeless shelters, and enables them to make their own independent decisions.

Philanthropy is an extraordinary engine of innovation. It bypasses the gridlock we see so often in government. It opens up new fields of research and inquiry, and enables social entrepreneurs to experiment with unconventional ideas and programs. 

Private charitable giving strengthens public discourse in our democracy. It makes possible our great think tanks, whether left, right or center. Name a great issue of public debate today: climate change, the role of government in health care, school choice, border security, the minimum wage. On all these issues, private philanthropy enriches debate by enabling organizations with diverse viewpoints to articulate and spread their message.

Throughout American history, donors and foundations have enjoyed the freedom to make their own charitable decisions. Unlike elected leaders, they are not accountable to the voters. Unlike businesses, they do not have to meet a market test. And this independence has enabled them to support bold, sometimes unpopular, sometimes unconventional initiatives. 

The opponents of philanthropy contend that donors would do more for humanity if they transferred their assets to government through higher taxes, rather than donating to their favorite causes. But if the Julius Rosenwald Fund had been accountable to voters or customers, it would not have been able to finance the construction of 5,000 schools for African-American children in the Jim Crow South. The John M. Olin Foundation would not have been able to help create the Federalist Society or establish law and economics as a flourishing field of academic study. The Pew, Hewlett, and Packard foundations would not have been able to alert society and government, years before others, to the dangers they expected in climate change.

This is why The Philanthropy Roundtable and our legislative arm the Alliance for Charitable Reform fight so ferociously to protect philanthropic freedom—the freedom to decide how and where to give away one’s charitable assets. It is why we are resisting actions by state attorneys general and legislatures to take away the First Amendment right of donors to make anonymous charitable contributions.

It is why we are fighting to make the charitable deduction available to all Americans, not just rich people. The charitable deduction is an indispensable guardrail against the intrusion of government into our lives and our communities. The deduction tells political leaders that money given to charity is not theirs but belongs to civil society.

And it is why we will resist any government mandate of demographic standards for foundation board and staff composition. Last year the state of California mandated quotas for women on corporate boards. We will fight any comparable restriction on independent decision-making in philanthropy.

We celebrate the pluralism of philanthropy, where donors with different worldviews, different passions, and different strategies channel their energy and resources into different organizations. And we believe philanthropy thrives in a culture of vigorous debate and exchange of ideas, where people with different viewpoints learn from each other and treat each other with dignity and respect. This represents diversity at its best.

Charitable giving represents only 2 percent of GDP, but it is an absolutely crucial 2 percent. Independent private giving is central to American greatness. And it keeps our society free.

Adam Meyerson is president of The Philanthropy Roundtable.

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