Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What could the new President do to promote philanthropy

Recently, I was contacted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy with an assignment:

How would I answer this question?

"What can the next President do to support philanthropy, volunteering and civil society overall?"

Here's my answer:

My work takes place in the inner city of Dallas, Texas. So, my perspective is more narrow than what one would expect from someone writing about philanthropy in general or at-large.

Because "poverty" is my issue of concern, I must begin by saying that philanthropy will not solve the problem, at least not on its own. No doubt, philanthropy will need to play a prominent role, but only when combined with more progressive, comprehensive public policy decisions that “take the battle” to poverty and its various attendant evils and challenges. As the title of a provocative volume of essays on the issue declares,
"the revolution will not be funded."

Public funds must be increased and strategically directed toward public education, higher education, housing, hunger and nutrition, health/wellness and health care, jobs and employment training, livable wage policy and many other important issues. Philanthropic dollars can follow, supplement and enhance, but without a new view of how public policy can impact poverty and provide solutions, philanthropic approaches will continue to struggle to make substantial progress for and among the poor.

That said, the new President could make philanthropy more powerful and effective in our struggle against poverty. Reforming tax policy that incentivize charitable contributions directed toward non-profits devoted to challenging poverty would be a place to begin. As long as non-profits whose mission involves serving the poor stand on the same platform as organizations devoted to the arts, health care institutions, and higher education, progress will not be realized as quickly as could be the case.

What if Congress devised a stratified deduction scale that provided a dollar for dollar deduction (100%) for funds given to organizations working with the poor? In other words, what if donations aimed at helping the poor could be considered 100% "excluded" from taxable income, rather than a simple deduction linked to one's tax bracket? No doubt, such a change would drive up donations given to serve the poor and or communities affected by poverty.

Volunteers are extremely important in many areas of our work in the inner city. For example, volunteer physicians and dentists offer wonderful service to thousands of patients every year in our various community-based health care efforts. What if the hours donated by doctors, dentists, nurses, lawyers (in our public interest law firm), legal aids, architects, professional fundraisers, entertainers, real estate professionals and developers, accountants--the list is long, were deductible and tied to a value scale that would establish the tax deduction such a professional volunteer could claim?

Forgive me for really meddling with my last suggestion. What if it became a federal/IRS requirement that tax-exempt organizations, like churches and faith communities, had to prove up the amount they invested in their communities to overcome poverty in order to maintain their tax status. The requirements to protect their tax status could be formulaic and tied to their size and budget history. As a former pastor, I realize this one will not be too popular with some church leaders, but I've always wondered why faith groups didn't have to do more to prove up their actual public/community benefit.


Anonymous said...

My comment got lost in the big blog trash bin in the sky so let me try again.

Obama's charitable contributions ranged from 1% to 6% over the last 8 years.

Biden's charitable contributions were approximately 0.3% giving less than $1000 with a taxable income of $319,853.

McCain on the other hand gives around $27% of his taxable income and even donated $1.8 million in royalties from his book.

I think it is obvious what the new president needs to do to promote philanthropy isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Truly amazing, Larry. I don't see how you put up with such comments as just above! You are talking about large-scale solutions, mattdabbs is talking about single donors and that without all the facts. Keep on working on the big picture.

mattdabbs, to whom did McCain donate his money? How much went to poverty orgs like Larry's.

I swear, no matter what the topic there are people like you who just won't just see the possibilities. Man!

Chris said...

Mattdabbs has a point. Obama and Biden gave very little of their income to charity, but notice Obama gave a little more as his political star went up. Can you say political opportunist?

Even if he counted his work as a community organizer as philanthropy, it turns out even worse. He accomplished close to nothing. There are pictures on the net of the housing developments in his district that are uninhabitable even after millions of tax dollars were poured into them. Some people say the only thing he accomplished was to get the city to test for asbestoes in apartments. What is omitted is that another activist played a significant role.

So from his past accomplishments, it might be well if someone else promoted philanthropy.

Larry could have done a lot with a hundred million in Dallas. I wish he had the opportunity.

Anonymous said...


Sorry you don't see my point as valid. I am glad Larry is loving enough to put up with me and that someone is able to put up with something they disagree with (if indeed he does).

The same questions can be asked of Obama and Biden. How much of Biden's $900 went to help poverty? I would guess something under $900 wouldn't you? I don't know the answer when it comes to McCain but if I found out that he was as stingy as Biden or Obama with their charitable contributions I assure you I would call them out on it as well. Thanks for putting up with me and God bless,


Anonymous said...

Obama won the Presidential election of 2008. It was in all the papers! You can probably still pick one up. Or you might want to check your local news.

He'll be our president for at least four years, probably eight (he can only serve two four year terms, its in the U.S.Constitution). Based on the past eight years, what's been proven is that if the President fails we all fail (we could get into an undeclared protracted war or the economy could fail, something like that).

So you might want to be a patriot and hope and pray for the best until he does mess up.

By the way, McCain and Palin lost their bid for President and VP, on the same night that Obama and Biden won - I think I'm right about that. You could check the papers, I think most of them reported on that. Neither of them can run again until 2012.

Anonymous said...

Yep I knew I heard that correct here's proof:


And here's more if you need it:


Anonymous said...

I think I referred to Obama as the "new president" didn't I? Is it possible to state the facts without being slammed and basically being called a denier of the obvious? I am not whining that McCain lost and Obama won. I wish Obama the best and I am praying that he does a marvelous job as president. There is nothing this country needs more than a successful black president to do this country proud. I am sorry if you have a chip on your shoulder. I am just giving you the numbers.

How about some more numbers. I had a look at what McCain gave and a HUGE percentage of it was to his own foundation in order to get tax write offs. Another large chunk was given to schools his family was affiliated with. Perfectly legal but not as philanthropic as it looks on the surface. So anon, I appreciate you writing what you did and leading me to do a little digging for myself. I really do appreciate it.

KenBandy said...

"...I've always wondered why faith groups didn't have to do more to prove up their actual public/community benefit."

Most likely because the government's definition of "public/community benefit" would necessarily differ from that of churches. The party in control of government and the judiciary would then decide how voluntary giving would be spent. That won't fly. People would simply quit giving.

Anonymous said...

based on all of the comments on this blog, it does not seem like Obama will be the President of those apparent horrible Republicans who most of you despise. can't wait to watch the disaster that awaits our country when Pelozi, Reid, Frank, and Obama unite. the handouts will be for all.

Larry James said...

Anon 8:29, I am very sorry you feel as you do. If you read here much at all, you will have to admit that an equal number of comments, if not more, come from your side of the opinion world.

I can assure you that I don't feel the way you suggest, and I hope you'll continue to post here. I certainly don't feel that your are horrible. It would be nice though, if I knew who you were.

BTW--this post was about how to increase the impact of philanthropy in the nation and had nothing to do with partisan politics, even though some of the comments took it that direction. I would have written the same thing had Sen. McCain won the election.

Can we all just take a deep breath and try to hear each other?

Larry James said...

KenBandy, you miss my point. Tax deductions are simply a given currently, no matter what a group does or does not do. My assumption is that the deduction and exemption are given because the nation, state, county, city regard the presence of the institution as beneficial to the taxing authority and thus worthy of the benefit. All I was suggesting wat that this be reconsidered in view of the organization seeking such an exemption to prove up its benefit even from its own perspective. The basis for exemption could be broadly defined and include activities and values all could agree on: seving children and families, helping the hungry and the poor, housing the homeless, providing education, child care, tutoring in public schools, organizing crime watch groups, helping with neighborhood clean up, etc. I didn't have in mind, as you may have, adversarial politics or hot button issues, just real community service.