A Reason Why I’m Thankful. . . and Fearful

Making a difference in the lives of others, in our communities, and on our world is noble and fulfilling work.  To wake up each morning with the recognition that our organizations educate, heal, transform, support, and uplift others is a blessing.  Because I feel called to be a part of non-profit advancement work, I am thankful.

And I’m even more thankful that I get to do this work here.  The non-profit sector within the U.S., is, in many respects, the envy of the world.  We aren’t perfect by any stretch.  Compared to leaders elsewhere in our society, non-profit executives are every bit as prone to injure their integrity (and their institution’s reputation) by yielding to the vices of greed, hubris, or any number of all-too-human bad habits.

But, the U.S. non-profit sector is strong because of a structural configuration.   Businesses make money.  Families rear children.  Governments provides justice.  Faith institutions encourage our higher angels.  And non-profits fill the gaps.  Each institution plays its part and serves as a piece of the puzzle.  And for the most part, these puzzle pieces have fit together rather nicely since the founding of the U.S.

And now, we have a story in the Chronicle of Philanthropy about the folks in Washington, D.C., who would like to see an end to the charitable gift tax deduction.  And while we’ve seen similar proposals before, this one is even more tragic than the run-of-the-mill tax code reform stuff.

Not only does this proposal do away with the charitable gift tax deduction, it also would create an IRS matching gift program in which the IRS would cut checks to non-profits for 15% of the total gift amount.  A donor gives $100 to a school or non-profit hospital.  The school or hospital would get an additional $15 from Uncle Sam.

Now, I’m generally an optimistic soul.  But putting a government agency in charge of providing subsidies directly to charitable organizations based on gift totals is about as problematic an idea as I’ve heard in a while.  In fact, I have too many specific concerns about this proposal to list them here!  But the biggest concern I have is more broad than any of the specific problems a proposal like this would create.

Our non-profit sector is robust because our society has allowed it to grow without too many guardrails.  Where there has been a need, volunteers, donors, and those served have been encouraged to work together and create solutions.  What has evolved is a rich landscape of entrepreneurial organizations which provide what no bureaucratic government can – transformational interactions for recipients, volunteers, and donors.  People helping people.  And for the most part, the puzzle works.

Proposals like this, which inject government (i.e., taxpayer) funds directly into non-profits of all stripes and types would injure, ultimately, the entrepreneurial foundation of the U.S. non-profit sector.  How long before we would hear something similar to the following?  “Since we are giving them 15% of every dollar raised, we need to be sure they serving their constituencies as we see fit. . .”

Keep the puzzle pieces in place.

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