Friday, October 12, 2007

Who says what's charitable?

There's been some buzz in the non-profit community this week about recent commentary in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times that question whether or not arts institutions, for example, really are charities (and should be entitled to charitable deductions). For example, in the LA Times, Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, says:

I'm all in favor of supporting the arts and our universities, but let's face it: These aren't really charitable contributions. They're often investments in the lifestyles the wealthy already enjoy and want their children to have too. They're also investments in prestige -- especially if they result in the family name being engraved on the new wing of an art museum or symphony hall.

He goes on to note that: Charitable donations to just about any not-for-profit are deductible from income taxes. This year, for instance, the U.S. Treasury will be receiving about $40 billion less than it would if the tax code didn't allow for charitable deductions.

Mr. Reich goes on to suggest that we revise the tax code to focus charitable deductions on "real charities" - if a donation goes to help the poor, the donor gets a full deduction, and if it goes somewhere else, the donor gets half of the deduction.

Mr. Reich, where's the love?!

As someone who has helped raised millions of dollars for cultural institutions, I wholeheartedly disagree with Mr. Reich. For starters, who gets to decide what a "real charity" is? A few other talking points... oh, let's take the example of a gift to the Opera, what most people would term a "high brow" institution (full disclosure - I'm an opera fan):
  • Most opera companies offer programs where school groups can come to a performance to learn about music, history, a foreign culture, etc.
  • The opera is both a seeker of funds and a revenue generator for the community - in places like New York, DC, San Francisco, and other major cities, opera patrons are spending money in the city for dinners, transportation, even on hotel rooms.
  • A rising tide lifts all ships - communities that have a healthy cultural life tend to have multiple institutions that provide cultural, educational programs - museums, galleries, music venues, etc. A gift to any of these cultural institutions raises the level of cultural enrichment for the entire community.
  • Of course, all of this is predicated upon the notion that cultural institutions provide valuable educational services and act as a public trust... that's a whole other blog entry! I've seen it with my own two eyes, working at places like the National Building Museum and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum - children and adults alike are expanding their world views and learning valuable new skills when they visit cultural institutions.
Is it hard to think about giving a gift to the Opera when there are people in my community who don't have enough to eat? Absolutely. I think it's important to give to both cultural enterprises AND social services. If I have only $20 to give away, where should it go first?

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