Category: Effective Compassion

A Stanford expert on philanthropy argues that tax-deductible American charity is actually a government subsidy and that philanthropy is not ‘redistributive’ enough. Acton’s Karen Woods points out (obvious to most) that helping the needy is not the exclusive domain of the state. “The real problem with government ‘charity’ is that government takes a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the problem of poverty,” Woods writes.

Read the complete commentary here.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Friday, January 6, 2006
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The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the closing of a federal housing loophole. The full article is accessible only to subscribers, so I’ll summarize. College students for a number of years have been taking advantage of Section 8 (federally subsidized housing) rules to live in “projects” while they go to school. Such housing is, obviously, supposed to be for the needy, but decidedly un-needy students have been benefiting. The Des Moines Register originally investigated the story (described here) and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa initiated the legislation to close the loophole. One student living at the expense of taxpayers was the son of the Univeristy of Iowa’s football coach, who earns $2 million per year.

So kudos to Harkin for addressing the issue. But the deeper and more intransigent problem is that massive government programs to help the needy will always be vulnerable to abuse. By necessity they must be subject to complicated and cumbersome bureaucratic rules, which cannot be adapted by administrators on the ground level making reasonable judgments. The existence of federal dorms for middle and upper class collegians over the last decade is only the latest example of the absurdity invited when the principle of subsidiarity is ignored.

Blog author: kwoods
Thursday, January 5, 2006
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With a gracious spirit, let’s say that [url=http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/F?c109:1:./temp/~c109UcVNaR:e173273:]Section 317[/url] of [url=http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?c109:1:./temp/~c109UcVNaR::]Senate Tax Relief Act of 2005[/url] was penned with the intent of fostering honest accountability in the charity world. And, furthermore, let’s graciously allow that the legislation was designed to send the message that the Internal Revenue Service is vigilantly watching over the donation of tax-deductible clothing and household goods.

A [url=http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/29/AR2005122901503.html]recent article[/url] in the Washington Post justifiably underscored the importance of providing goods to charities that actually have value. Too much of what is given to charities today winds up in the local dump.

But Congress was not thinking clearly when it included a “Limitation of Deduction for Charitable Contributions of Clothing and Household Items” in Section 317. This measure requires the Secretary of the Treasury to annually create a list that places ‘market values’ on all household goods or items that would potentially be donated to a charitable organization. For a contribution in excess of $250, the donor would be required to secure a receipt from the charity that provided an itemized list “of number of items contributed, an indication of the condition of each item, a description of the type of item contributed, and a copy of the Secretary’s valuation list or an instruction on how to obtain such list.”

If the donated item is not in a “good used condition or better,” the charity would then need to value the contribution at 20 percent of the market value as deemed by the Secretary’s list. Or no value at all if the charity said it was worthless to the organization.

The [url=http://www.cpjustice.org/cprf]Coalition to Preserve Religious Freedom[/url] argues that Section 317 generates serious operations and accounting burdens for rescue missions and small nonprofit organizations. That is a polite response.

For more than two years now, the IRS has been telling Congress — and the Senate Finance Committee in particular — that it doesn’t have the resources to get its charity oversight work done. Now the IRS wants to get into the clothing and household goods valuation business?

Maybe the Beltway crowd has missed the private sector solution to this issue — one that you can simply order onlilne. The [url=http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0970323077/qid=1136406966/sr=8-1/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-5327901-0168046?n=507846&s=books&v=glance]2005 It’s Deductible Workbook[/url] is now significantly discounted, but even last week, you could get a copy online for $14.95. Called the “Blue Book for Donated Items,” this private sector product is fully compliant with IRS code.

So, first of all, we should all agree that the IRS doesn’t need to “reinvent the in-kind donation pricing wheel.”

What’s more, we need to ask why the responsibility for finding the value (whatever the source) of donated in-kind goods is put on the receiver of the goods instead of the giver.

Section 317 has the potential to create a classic “unintended consequences” scenario. It may result in the government spending millions of tax dollars to generate information that already exists in the private sector, which by the way, is based on market values. Then the agency that receives the donation has to go through the red tape of providing an itemized list, value, and condition report for each item. That should go a long way toward further burdening and possibly eliminating scores of smaller charities, thrift shops, and rescue missions — groups that are already stretched by the basic tasks of receiving, sorting, and selling donated goods.

Is this all by design? Officials in Washington have been quoted as saying that there are too many small charities in this country. That means, to their way of thinking, that these charities are too difficult to regulate. If the true intent of charity regulation reform is greater accountability for all, let’s find a better way. Section 317 is neither the effective nor efficient way to accomplish this objective.

I’ve written about the narrower problem of generational conflict as it relates to social security policy, here and here.

From a perspective that encompasses the broader, related cultural, economic, and moral issues, Eric Cohen and Leon Kass write in Commentary the most thoughtful and thought-provoking piece I’ve read on the matter of intergenerational responsibility and end-of-life care.

Credit to Stanley Kurtz at The Corner.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, January 3, 2006
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Sometimes one man’s trash is just trash. “Most people have no clue what’s involved with taking a garbage bag of stuff and getting it to the person who needs it,” said Lindy Garnette, executive director for SERVE Inc., a Manassas-based nonprofit that operates a 60-bed homeless shelter and food bank.

According to this story, “Eager for Treasure, Not Trash: Charities Sort Through Piles of Donated Goods, Some of Which They Can’t Use,” by Michael Alison Chandler in The Washington Post, these are some of the items donated this holiday season: 20-year-old golf clubs, old Victoria’s Secret Valentine’s Day gifts, six-year-old computers, beta VCRs, broken toys, puzzles without all the pieces and unmatched shoes.

“Many of these gifts end up in the trash, or they are given to yet another charity — one with more storage space — such as the Salvation Army, which has its own dump trucks and daily pickups scheduled to haul away the unsellable stuff from its stores.

After all the sorting, cleaning, storing and transporting, gifts sometimes end up being more trouble than they are worth for strapped nonprofits, which have limited staff and resources.”

For more on how to give effectively so that nonprofits can function efficiently, check out Acton’s Impact World Hunger campaign. A huge part of what we do here is connecting the good intentions of charity and compassion with thoughtful economic understanding.


Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
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More evidence surfaces of the necessity of using discretion when giving charitably. Not too many readers of this blog will be surprised that the United Nations is not the most efficient entity in the world. It seems that overhead gobbled up a third of the funds the U.N. raised for tsunami relief last year.

But private charities aren’t immune to problems. Fifty people have been indicted in a scandal at the Red Cross. Employees were directing Katrina-victim funds to “needy” friends and family.

Maybe there’s a lesson here about giving to smaller, less bureaucratic organizations. Definitely there’s proof that lack of personal integrity is a problem that extends beyond the world of for-profit business. And definitely there’s affirmation of the need to give wisely.

Karen Woods, Director of Acton’s Center for Effective Compassion, reminds us to be wise as we engage in charity:

Good intentions are not enough. The most significant giving season of the year is no time to relent in our vigilance to avoid the unintended consequences of hurricane recovery (or in any other social need area either). From the smallest, personal kindness extended to an individual hurricane victim, to the most generous in-kind and cash donations of corporate America, due diligence remains important.

Read the full article at National Review Online.

Paul Theroux, a former Peace Corps volunteer, indicts what he calls the “more money” platform, headed by none other than U2 frontman Bono, in a NYT op-ed, “The Rock Star’s Burden.”

“Those of us who committed ourselves to being Peace Corps teachers in rural Malawi more than 40 years ago are dismayed by what we see on our return visits and by all the news that has been reported recently from that unlucky, drought-stricken country. But we are more appalled by most of the proposed solutions.”

The piece is well worth reading: “We should know better by now. I would not send private money to a charity, or foreign aid to a government, unless every dollar was accounted for – and this never happens. Dumping more money in the same old way is not only wasteful, but stupid and harmful; it is also ignoring some obvious points.” Theroux goes on to examine some of these points, in convincing fashion.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 7, 2005
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A Boston-based program operated by clergy and police officers, the Boston Re-Entry, was denied further funding for their ex-convict re-integration program, seemingly and at least in part because they were not forthcoming about their program’s results. The Black Ministerial Alliance is one of the major groups involved in the program.

The Boston Globe reports that “applicants for funds from President Bush’s Prisoner Reentry Initiative were required to demonstrate a record of success in rehabilitating ex-convicts. The proposal from the ministers and police supplied scant information about the results of its program, which has received about $1.1 million in local, state, and federal government funding since 2001.”

Spokesmen for the Black Ministerial Alliance and Boston police officers are decrying the move as undermining the welfare of the city of Boston. But, as the Globe states,

Boston did not lose the new grant altogether. But instead of funding the well-known ministers-police partnership, the Department of Labor awarded the grant of $660,000 to Span Inc., a nonprofit agency that for 29 years has been helping prisoners in the Greater Boston area reenter society.

A Globe review of grant documents, along with interviews with the directors of the ministerial alliance and Span, suggests that Span may have edged out the Black Ministerial Alliance and police because it was better able to demonstrate that its programs work.

A key point in making the determination apparently was the demonstration of “measurable outcomes.”

Lyn Levy, the founder and executive director of Span, said the following: “You absolutely have to be able to show outcomes and demonstrate successes or you’re not going to be able to get the money.”

It’s hard to see whether there are any faith-elements in Span’s work, but clearly when governments are facing budget pressures, merely being faith-based isn’t going to be enough. Results matter, too.

For a listing of faith-based non-profits that have an emphasis on participant outcomes and transformation or change a presence of faith elements, visit Acton’s Samaritan Guide.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, December 7, 2005
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Anyone familiar with the Acton Institute knows we appreciate the work of economists. But we also object when economists overreach and try to apply useful tools and concepts in inappropriate ways. This happens, for example, when they claim that the charity of Mother Teresa can be exhaustively explained by reference to self-interest. (She gets warm feelings and satisfaction from what she does, you see.)

Well, here’s a blunt example of such thinking. Richard Tomkins in the Financial Times complains this holiday season about the trend toward “ethical gift giving.”

One can appreciate his skepticism over the idea of buying someone else a brood of chickens in a developing country so as to emphasize one’s own righteousness. But in his broader analysis of gift-giving, his cynicism goes too far:

No one, after all, does something for nothing, except when helping family members – and even then, it is with the aim of perpetuating their own genes. In the case of non-relatives, it makes no sense at all to help others without getting anything in return. Instead, humans help others who help them (and shun those who fail to help them) because they learnt long ago that they were more successful working together than alone. It was from this understanding that moralistic emotions such as gratitude and guilt emerged.

Leaving aside the moral evolutionism, it should be obvious that the ethical message of Christianity is directly at loggerheads with the view expressed here. But non-Christians, too, ought to be able to recognize the inadequacy of such a theory of human action. A society composed of people whose motivations were as simple as Mr. Tomkins’ account would be harsh and inhumane. It is neither accurate as description nor attractive as prescription.