Who Will Tackle Tomorrow’s Hard Problems?

December 30, 2010

In their rush to gain an end of the year tax deal, elected leaders postponed hard choices. In the process, they denied the government the revenues it needs to either respond to unforeseen crises or deliver on promises made.

At the same time, wary corporate decision-makers reported that uncertainty over tax and fiscal policy had discouraged them from creating jobs or making R&D investments essential to prosperity.

As self- imposed constraints limit the agility of these two important sectors, a third — the non-profit sector – worries that the 2010 Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act may have a cascading effect, further impoverishing state and local governments, shifting the burden of providing social services from the public to the non-profit sector. Moreover, its leaders fear that the estate tax provisions may reduce incentives for wealthy individuals to make the no-strings-attached donations and bequests that free the sector from the constraints of politics and markets.

Our tax structure has long reflected the value we place on the nonprofit sector’s ability to take risks and try out new ideas without fear of political or market reprisals. Income and inheritance taxes have encouraged donations and bequests, as well as the creation of tax exempt foundations. As a result, our nation has a diverse charitable sector comprised of grantees and grantors who are tackling issues at home and across the globe. Free from the need to garner votes or generate profits, they needn’t test the political winds before offering services to the most marginalized Americans. Their reach extends to the developing world, where they have created or supported “social enterprises” with for-profit business models for providing off-grid communities with renewable sources of energy. And, globally they have even entered into public-private partnerships to effect high policy, as Warren Buffett did in making his $50-million gift to the U.N.’s politically-hampered and resource-strapped International Atomic Energy Agency. That grant will help to create a “nuclear fuels bank” upon which states committed to nonproliferation can draw to meet their energy needs.

Whether the tax deal will limit the freedom of non-profits to achieve such salutary outcomes is a matter of intense debate. But, it is up to us to ask and answer that question before the law’s review in 2012. An election year is a particularly poor time for political risk-taking. Policy-makers will need to be armed with the facts, and buttressed by a clear and unswerving sense of the sector’s purpose.

First the data: The law extends several provisions that can affect charitable giving – and provides time to gather data on their effect. It extends Bush-era tax cuts at all income levels and continues favorable treatment of capital gains and dividends. It delays a requirement that high-income tax-payers reduce their itemized deductions, including for charitable gifts. It exempts older taxpayers from treating up to $100k gifted to charities from their IRAs as taxable income. But, what worries some nonprofits is the 35% cap it places on inheritance taxes, while exempting estates of $5m or less.  Many analysts argue that these estate tax provisions will remove incentives for bequests as well as giving-while-living aimed at reducing the size of the taxable estate. Others contend that estate tax considerations play a negligible role in the decision to give, but can influence the size of the gifts made. They draw on the 2004 predictions of the Congressional Budget Office, which anticipated a drop off in the number and size of bequests. Indeed fewer dollars were donated in this way during the phase-out of the estate tax, from 2008-2009. But, that year’s economic contraction is likely to have had far greater effect. More time in an improved economic climate can yield more data on which policymakers can base future choices.

And, the purpose – As we undertake that analysis, it is essential that we come to a shared view of the reasons for charitable organizations, and their tax-exempt status, in the first place. Americans value nonprofits because they can take actions and generate ideas that may be unwelcome, unpopular, and unprofitable in the short run, but produce true societal benefit over time. In the process, they can help identify and tackle truly hard problems when others cannot. Among the hard problems nonprofits can help address is the need to get our country on a financially sustainable course. Nonprofits have already contributed by sounding the alarm, providing analysis and offering policy options.

The deficit dilemma has helped to highlight the hurdles political and business decision-makers face when it comes to calling for sacrifice. Elected officials must respond to caricatures of their views repeated in 24 hour news-cycles. Business leaders are required to produce shareholder value as measured in quarterly returns. The nonprofit sector may be the only one that can afford to ask tough questions, test novel solutions and build consensus from the ground up.

In considering our tax laws in 2012 our goals should be straight-forward: to regain our ability to solve problems as a nation. Preserving the nonprofit sector’s freedom to help tackle society’s next hard problem is an essential first step.

Jane

Jane Wales
President & Co-Founder, Global Philanthropy Forum

 

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