The Freedom to Give Fuels American Generosity: How to Protect Charitable Giving

President and CEO of Philanthropy Roundtable Elise Westhoff recently submitted testimony to the Generosity Commission ahead of its final report set to be released in early 2024. The commission is a nonpartisan group of individuals from across the charitable sector whose mission is “to celebrate and support American’s spirit of generosity as expressed through giving, volunteering and civic engagement.” The Generosity Commission launched in 2021 as an independent project of Giving USA Foundation to “advance research, education and public understanding of philanthropy.”

Westhoff’s testimony covers recent trends in charitable giving as well as the challenges and opportunities facing the philanthropic sector. From highlighting how philanthropic freedom fuels American generosity to addressing troubling attacks on charitable givers, her testimony celebrates the diversity and innovation of the American philanthropic tradition that has improved lives and strengthened communities for hundreds of years.  

Below is the third installment in a three-part series based on written testimony prepared for the Generosity Commission. To read part one, click here. To read part two, click here.

Jack Salmon, director of policy research at Philanthropy Roundtable, contributed to this testimony.

PART THREE: Philanthropic Freedom Fuels American Giving and Volunteering

How to Reverse the Trends 

Enabling Americans to continue to give and volunteer generously and freely first requires recognizing the value of philanthropy for a thriving civil society. This ultimately starts with respecting the freedom of speech, freedom of association and the rights of donors to give freely and anonymously. Nonprofit organizations should be ready and willing to face-off against the populist interests that seek to erode these fundamental institutions. We in the charitable sector should seek to defend and enhance, not decay, philanthropic institutions of civil society. In addition, policymakers should refrain from imposing one-size-fits-all regulatory burdens and additional onerous requirements on flexible charitable vehicles. This will go a long way in ensuring that Americans of all financial means have the ability to increase their charitable giving over time.  

Along with protecting the right of donors to give freely and anonymously, the sector must uphold the intent of donors to foster giving. Fidelity to a donor’s intent signals to other philanthropists that they can rest easy knowing their gifts will serve the causes that best align with their values and their philanthropic intentions will be honored. Higher levels of trust in philanthropic institutions in turn leads to higher levels of generosity. The importance of trust between donors and those entrusted with donors’ gifts cannot be understated as a vital foundation of philanthropy, generosity and a thriving civil society. In order to maintain trust between donors and charitable organizations where there are gaps in the enforceability of giving agreements, policymakers should look to provide a legal pathway for the enforcement of written endowment agreements. 

Philanthropic Freedom Matters 

Protecting donors’ rights and freedom to give how, when and where they choose is a core part of the Roundtable’s work. We firmly believe the key to success for America’s longstanding philanthropic tradition is its voluntary nature.  

At Philanthropy Roundtable, we believe charitable organizations are uniquely suited to solve complex social challenges. Philanthropy and the nonprofit organizations it supports are innovative and entrepreneurial in ways that government simply is not. As a result, they have a unique potential to uplift individuals and entire communities. And, because we believe this, we feel a duty to ensure those institutions are as strong and effective as possible.  

The U.S. charitable sector is incredibly diverse and dynamic, with thousands of organizations working to address a wide range of issues. This landscape includes everything from large, established nonprofits to small, community-based organizations, and everything in between. What sets this sector apart is the creativity and innovation that is fostered by a heterogeneous landscape, where new ideas are welcomed, debated and tested.  

This vibrancy is essential when it comes to addressing complex and stubborn problems. It allows for experimentation and risk-taking, which are critical to finding new solutions. By protecting philanthropic freedom and facilitating an environment where new ideas can be tested and refined, the charitable sector will continue to be uniquely positioned to improve lives and strengthen our communities.  

This piece is the third installment in a three-part series based on written testimony prepared for the Generosity Commission. To read part one, click here. To read part two, click here.

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