31 March 2017

“We” Don’t Decide Where Private Giving Should Go

by Sean Parnell, Vice President of Public Policy, The Philanthropy Roundtable

David Callahan of Inside Philanthropy had a provocative and, at least in the view here at the Alliance for Charitable Reform, wrongheaded attack on philanthropic freedom published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy earlier this week (“Stop the Tax Breaks to Donors Who Give to Influence Policy”). A longer response is being prepared challenging many of the assumptions and assertions contained in the piece, but one thing jumped out when reading it that merits a quicker response.

After proposing that large contributions made to “policy and advocacy” organizations not be tax deductible (elsewhere he indicates this would be aimed at think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and advocacy-heavy organizations like environmental groups), he offers the following observation:

I don’t raise this idea lightly, and I’m well aware of how disruptive it would be. But with a historic transfer of wealth occurring and the potential for trillions of dollars to end up at nonprofits, now is the time to think long term about where we want this money to go.

What Callahan either overlooks or apparently isn’t troubled by is one rather obvious fact – for the most part, there is no “we” in terms of deciding where philanthropists should be giving their money. There is the philanthropist and his or her interests, objectives, and priorities, as well as any family members, friends, or other advisors the philanthropist may wish to bring into the decision-making process. But beyond that, “we” don’t have much say in where philanthropists decide to put their money, any more than “we” have any say on whether they give to charity in the first place or spend the money for their own personal uses. Nor should we have any say.

There’s a more extended argument on this point relating to the principle of philanthropic freedom as well as what it means to live in a free society where a great many things lay outside of the government’s ability to control or even influence in more than trivial ways. But for now, it’s important that “we” remember when discussing philanthropy that it is emphatically not the public’s money being given away, it is the philanthropist’s. While “we” may benefit from the generosity of individuals who give to charitable causes, that in no way imposes an obligation on the giver to seek our approval for their giving. To suggest anything else is to eliminate the distinction between private charity and government, something that few should seek.