June 12, 2009 -- Americans are historically a generous people. Thus it’s shocking to see the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy undermining the valid foundations of charity in the name of charity.
A major report from that organization asserts, “Philanthropy at its Best must serve the public good by contributing to strong, participatory democracy that engages all communities.” It then asserts that any charitable organization that properly promotes this value does two things:
First, “Provides at least 50 percent of its grant dollars to benefit low-income communities, communities of color and other marginal groups…” And second, “Provides at least 25 percent of its dollars for advocacy, organizing and civic engagement to promote equality, opportunity and justice in our society.”
“So what?” you might ask. “If that’s how this or other groups want to spend their money, that’s their own business.” But NCPR’s purpose is not to make grants. Rather, it declares its purpose to be “the country’s independent watchdog of foundations” and to promote what it considers to be “good practices.”
So where does it come up with this “50 percent” standard? Is it valid? Should other groups take it seriously?
Many people think that our worth or value as individuals should be measured by how much we give away to others. But before we can give it away, we’ve got to make it. This raises the question, what is the basis of all values?
The ultimate value is human life. If you’re dead, what you like or don’t like makes no difference. And the only way we can stay alive is by using our minds to understand the world around us so that we can act to create the means of our physical survival as well as our spiritual fulfillment. But life is an attribute of each of us as individuals. We think or blank out our brains, are happy or sad, are alive or dead as individuals. Thus all values ultimately come back to each of us as individuals.
There is a plethora of particulars that we each judge to be best for our lives, particulars that will differ from those others judge to be best for their lives. Thus in civil society, we must be free to pursue our own happiness as we think best, as long as we deal with others based on mutual consent. Governments should be limited to protecting us from others who might use force to get their way.
Of course, many of the things we seek in life will involve others; the richness of civil society is seen in our individual freedom to work in concert with others on a voluntary basis. Sometimes, we might promote our values through philanthropy. If you make charitable donations, your goal should be to promote and further your own values.
By this standard, the NCRP’s “50 percent” rule is plainly an arbitrary assertion. If particular individuals and groups use their money in accordance with this rule, that’s their choice. But it is sheer conceit to suggest that such giving is somehow an objective measure of “good practices.”
Want to cure epilepsy? You probably want every dollar you donate to that cause to go for medical research. Diverting funds to meet an arbitrary “50 percent” rule might be utterly foolish and undermine the goal you seek.
Want to help your local symphony orchestra? You might want your money to go to defraying costs so the orchestra can play more concerts so you can hear more music. Perhaps your personal goal is not to make certain that half the audience members are below the federally-defined poverty line. If you or others wanted to donate money for free tickets so that the poor can enjoy Beethoven and Brahms, that would be fine too. But it should be your choice.
Want to help humans colonize Mars? The Mars Society—which I support!—would help do that privately. This group, for example, spends its money re-creating in the Canadian Arctic the conditions that explorers would encounter on the Red Planet to understand how to meet such challenges. Why doesn’t NCRP decree that “good practices” require every philanthropic organization to direct at least 50 percent of their funds to making certain that a second home for the human race is established on the fourth planet from the sun?
It’s not enough for friends of freedom simply to brush off the NCRP “50 percent” rule as the sort of altruistic arrogance we expect from the political left. (By the way, NCRP’s executive director, Aaron Dorfman, worked for five years as a local ACORN organizer so we know where he’s coming from.)
NCRP’s recommendations are a step toward further destroying the wall of separation between government and civil society, making every aspect of our lives a political matter and making political elites our masters.
Do you think this is an exaggeration? At the announcement of the NCRP’s new rules, California Democrat Representative Xavier Becerra said, “Taxpayers have rewarded [foundations] for being there for America.” But, he added: “At the same time, those of us at Congress have an obligation as the representatives of the people to make sure that their money—taxpayer money—is being well invested.”
How many Americans understand the sheer evil of this remark, made even more so because it’s made in the name of charity? All of your money belongs to “the taxpayers,” that is, “society,” that is, some undifferentiated collective. This collective will let you use some of its resources to support foundations and causes that you favor as long as your goals meet the standards of a “dictatorship of the Proletariat” Congress—and Commissar Becerra in particular. In other words, it’s not your money and you shouldn’t be allowed to use it to support values not favored by your masters.
This sort of talk from members of Congress is a prelude to them taking NCRP’s suggestions, which philanthropic foundations are free to adopt or reject voluntarily, and remaking them into mandatory dictates. Furthermore, with Obama administration officials talking about the possibility of reducing the tax deduction for charitable contributions, we see another attempt to take control of our lives away from us and concentrate it in an increasingly totalitarian state. Americans must wake up and meet this threat lest future historians someday list it as one of the steps on America’s road to tyranny.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.