Loving the San Francisco Bay Area... Community development, urban ministry, trying to defeat poverty, faith, religion, politics, good music, the quest for the perfect pizza, the Yankees, motorcycles... All in a 'day's life'

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Big Gifts, Tax Breaks and a Debate on Charity

New York Times Article on the debate regarding the societal benefits of non profit donations. It's a somewhat rambling article, but my feeling is that this is a brewing debate.
Eli Broad, a billionaire businessman, has given away more than $650 million over the last five years, to Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to establish a medical research institute, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and to programs to improve the administration of urban schools and public education."What smart entrepreneurial philanthropists and their foundations do is get greater value for how they invest their money than if the government were doing it."

"I got a plaque in the mail and an invitation to an awards ceremony. I never gave them another nickel. What were they spending money on plaques for?"
The rich are giving more to charity than ever, but people like Mr. Broad are not the only ones footing the bill for such generosity. For every three dollars they give away, the federal government typically gives up a dollar or more in tax revenue, because of the charitable tax deduction and by not collecting estate taxes.

Mr. Broad (rhymes with road) says his gifts provide a greater public benefit than if the money goes to taxes for the government to spend. “I believe the public benefit is significantly greater than the tax benefit an individual receives,” Mr. Broad said. “I think there’s a multiplier effect. What smart, entrepreneurial philanthropists and their foundations do is get greater value for how they invest their money than if the government were doing it.”

It is an argument made by many of the nation’s richest people. But not all of them. Take the investor William H. Gross, also a billionaire. Mr. Gross vigorously dismisses the notion that the wealthy are helping society more effectively and efficiently than government.


The billionaires’ differing views epitomize a growing debate over what philanthropy is achieving at a time when the wealthiest Americans control a rising share of the national income and, because of sharp cuts in personal taxes, give up less to government.



A common perception of philanthropy is that one of its central purposes is to alleviate the suffering of society’s least fortunate and therefore promote greater equality, taking some of the burden off government. In exchange, the United States is one of a handful of countries to allow givers a tax deduction. In essence, the public is letting private individuals decide how to allocate money on their behalf.

What qualifies for that tax deduction has broadened over the 90 years since its creation to include everything from university golf teams to puppet theaters — even an organization established after Hurricane Katrina to help practitioners of sadomasochism obtain gear they had lost in the storm.

Roughly three-quarters of charitable gifts of $50 million and more from 2002 through March 31 went to universities, private foundations, hospitals and art museums, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Of the rest, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation accounted for half on the center’s list. That money went primarily to improve the lives of the poor in developing countries. Valuable as that may be, it also meant that the American public effectively underwrote several billion dollars worth of foreign aid by private individuals, even though poll after poll shows Americans are at best ambivalent about using tax dollars in such assistance.

In contrast, few gifts of that size are made to organizations like the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity and America’s Second Harvest, whose main goals are to help the poor in this country. Research shows that less than 10 percent of the money Americans give to charity addresses basic human needs, like sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry and caring for the indigent sick, and that the wealthiest typically devote an even smaller portion of their giving to such causes than everyone else.

Q. Should the IRS direct more charitable donations be used for the poor and not universities and art institutions? Since you're tax dollars indirectly support charitable organizations, should the government / people have a greater say in it's use and administration?

1 comment:

  1. Great blog JL. I was unaware of the complexity of this issue. Makes me wanna be rich!

    ReplyDelete