A Dog Eat Dog World

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 17th, 2009 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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As much as it pains me to admit this, there have been times in my life when I found it just didn’t pay to read a newspaper (add, in today’s world, use any means to keep abreast of the world affairs).  Today might just have to be the start of one of those periods. 

Did something major happen today?  No, I just started doing a little catch-up reading at lunch, and my reading started and ended with the March 12 edition of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.  Now, don’t get me wrong, there is no earth-shattering report or conclusion that The Chronicle revealed.  It is just that too much of the issue revealed a scary reality:  those outside of the sector have no understanding to guide their thinking and decision making when it comes to “helping” the nonprofit sector.

Here’s what I saw.  Many, many column inches on Obama’s proposal to limit federal tax breaks that “wealthy” people get for their donations to charities.  This, somehow, would help pay for what I agree is much needed health care reform.  But last time I checked, there still were many nonprofit health care systems operating in the United States, many of which receive very, very lovely donations from the wealthy.  Or at least they used to.  There was another article that bore the headline “Economists Try to Calculate the Impact of Tax Changes on Charitable Giving.”  Excuse me!  Shouldn’t we have done those calculations—and with certainty, not merely trying –before that proposal was released and caused the panic with which many in the nonprofit sector greeted it? 

But wait:  The Chronicle shared the results of the recent study by Bank of America and the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University.  According to this study, 47 percent  of those surveyed ( 700 households with annual income of at least $200,000 or liquid assets of $1 million or more) said they would give less if they could not get a  tax deduction for their gift, but 37 percent  of the respondents said they’d give more if the estate tax were eliminated.  And, just so we are clear, this data was collected in July and August of 2008, and respondents were comparing donations made in 2007.  So, find the good and bad news in these data items and those in the rest of the study.

The topics mentioned above got inches upon inches, pages and pages of type.  But the following story got not even a full page of its own.  Surrogate’s Court in New York has decided that the trustees of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust are not bound by her wishes to spend the foundation’s money on the care and feeding of animals.  The trustees, according to the ruling, have “sole discretion” to give money to whatever charities they wish.  Oh, yea!  Now donors can earmark their gifts only to have their intentions ignored if—well, if what?  The establishment papers aren’t tight enough? Someone doesn’t like how the organization is currently using the dollars? Someone other than the designated nonprofit(s) wants a share of the billions for your charity? So many other possibilities?  Why would any donor want to risk having his/her gift go for purposes other that which was prescribed?

While seemingly unrelated, these stories, these realities, are very much related.  They are about the future of the nonprofit sector.  They are about how our society values—or doesn’t value—the contributions the nonprofit sector makes to society.  They are about how and on whose backs we are going to get out of the mess that the greedy and the wealthy got us into.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.