Nonprofits' War of Independence

Professor Joel Fleishman, author of “The Foundation: A Great American Secret; How Private Wealth is Changing the World,” is very clear on one thing: America has a long history of positive social change affected through the initiatives of private individuals and foundations.   These nongovernmental institutions have been succesful because of their greatest weapon, independence.   An article that was recently forwarded to me in The Commentary Magazine entitled, “The War on Philanthropy”, by David Billet, argues that this autonomy is under fire.

First, by the United States Government.

The Obama administration has been trying to pass a law that will “reduce the charitable deduction for the highest two income-tax brackets by almost 30 percent.”  As it stands right now, these two brackets get to write off 39 percent while the other brackets only get to write off 28 percent; this initiative would cap all citizens at 28 percent.  But not to worry, it is all in the name of fairness.  And no, the President doesn’t address the fact that most charity is received from these top two brackets.  The President only offers a consoling “There is very little evidence that this program has a significant impact on charitable giving.”  Not so consoling when you read that the article cites a noted economist who concludes that “the President’s proposal would reduce the amount of money given to charity by at least 10 percent.”

Billet explains that “the specific indictment against private philanthropy goes something like this: Because the Treasury forfeits some $30 billion every year in various tax exemptions for charity, government has a responsibility to see that this subsidy is  justified by the use to while the money is put.”   Making things worse, the author is worried by the President’s “casual dismissal of the role of incentives in altruism” and that Obama “makes little of the fact that a donor does not consume a single penny of the charitable donation that is currently exempted from taxes.”  While currently, the Senate is refusing to pass the President’s bill, the economic downturn might force the Senate to rethink its position.

Second, by the nonprofit sector itself.

In recent years a number of think-tanks and organizations have sprung up that seek to police the “philanthropic status quo.”  Spurred by ideas of social and racial equality, these organizations are releasing widely-read authoritative reports and taking legal action in an attempt to impose “ideological mandates,” and to establish guidelines and percentages that will govern how foundations can allocate their funds.  In essense, the article concludes, these groups “rather than encourage the proliferation of views and ideas in the nonprofit world, they seek instead to stultify sameness.”

Third, by the socialists.

The article points out that the success of private institutions in providing public works is something that discomforts the public sector: “Virtually, wherever public and private groups take up the same task, the private group outperforms [the public sector].”  This is understanding considering that private individuals and foundations are energetic and passionate about their work, are more flexible than governmental agencies hampered by bureaucracy, are able to take more risks,  are more able to weed out corruption and are more fluid in moving on to the next pressing task.  The role of private philanthropy in the United States, thus, has been a matter of concern to those that believe that these tasks are justly the responsiblity of the government whose true function is “the administrator of social justice.”

This fight for independence is all the more prevalent in Israel, claims Hillel Shmid, Director of the Study of Philanthropy in Israel at the Hebrew Universityand Director of the Haruv Institute.  In a recent conversation I had with him, Prof. Shmid explained that the last decade has seen the government shifting away from being a socialist state.  Israel has been filling its void by contracting much of its former responsibilities out to nonprofit organizations.  To make sure that these institutions are up for the task, the government regularly issues guidelines and regulations.  In essense, Shmid argues, these institutions are slowly turning into mere extensions of the government.  The uniqueness and diversity once prevelant in Israeli nonprofits is starting to disappear.

The cure?  In Israel, the answer, while not easy, is straight forward according to Professor Shmid: He prescribes a complete withdrawal and refusal of governmental financial support.  A tall order, indeed, as these nonprofits would then need to rely soley on donations.  In the United States, the answers vary.  Some argue that as with natural disasters, one can only bunker down and wait for these policing trends to pass.  Others disagree and make a case for taking a stand and fighting in the necessary arenas.  Surely a costly venture.

Note: While I have summarized some of the points of the “The War on Philanthropy,” the full article is worth the read.

Tizku LeMitzvot [May you continue to merit doing good deeds],


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