Wednesday, May 29, 2019
With summer here and the day-to-day craziness mostly (!) under control, I have the luxury of a few moments of just … thinking. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the text of the Code, the most recent case law, or the scandal du jour (I’m looking at you, NRA). But I rarely have the time to step back and take a wider scope on things.
At this particular moment, it is courtesy of Twitter, which seems somewhat antithetical to big thoughts (literally, given the word count), but one never knows from whence inspiration may come. In the matter of just a few days, a number of Twitter posts came across my feed that connect indirectly in my mind to a larger questions of the role of charity in a democracy.
Twitter post number 1. Nonprofit Quarterly posted an article on its website entitled “The Road Less Traveled: Establishing the Link between Nonprofit Governance and Democracy.”
This article discusses how best practices in nonprofit board governance increase the representation of the various communities served by a nonprofit. The failure to follow these best practices results in a “’democratic deficit’ in board governance- that is, an absence of democratic structures and processes.” Addressing the democratic deficit doesn’t just benefit the charity – it benefits our democracy writ large: “Wider constituent participation in nonprofit governance will not only help citizens develop civic skills and democratic values … .”
Twitter post number 2. The second Twitter post links to a Nonprofit Quarterly podcast that discusses “No White Saviors,” a movement that discusses the impact of race on hierarchy and power in the international charitable economic development space.
This links a Nonprofit Quarterly podcast that discusses “No White Saviors,” a movement that discusses the impact of race on hierarchy and power in the international charitable economic development space. “Those with power hav[e] the resources and capability to make decisions on what should the outcome should be for vulnerable populations.” Podcast at 6:42.
Twitter post number 3. The third post is an interview with Phil Buchanan of The Center for Effective Philanthropy, posted on vox.com, where he responds to criticism of that wealthy philanthropy is undemocratic (set for the more fully in his book, Giving Done Right).
In the interview, Buchanan is quoted as saying:
The structural critiques are important and they play out in our democratic politics. But in the meantime, here we are. We have significant wealth that’s been accumulated in this country. We have endowed private foundations that don’t even have a connection on the board to the original donor. These are institutions that are focused on a mission. They’re focused on the public good. I like working in the day to day, in the practical reality, where there are people with decision-making power to allocate these resources. I want to help them to do it effectively.
I think all of these pieces raise interesting views on the role of power and money and the role of the charitable sector in a democracy. At the end of the Buchanan interview, he specifically asks if we should be subsidizing all of this through the tax code, and specifically the Section 170 charitable deduction (spoiler alert: he says yes, and expand it to non-itemizers).
I’m more interested, however, in the Section 501(c)(3) implications on all of this. Since Section 501(c)(3) is the section that creates the boundaries between that which is charitable (at least, charitable in tax terms) and that which is not, does it make sense for those rules to play a role in policing this issue. One could view the 1969 passage of the private foundation excise taxes as the historical pre-cursor for this discussion, as at least part of the background of that legislation was to minimize the benefit to and the influence of the most wealthy through charitable vehicles. My thoughts aren’t fully formed on this, but I found it an interesting crossing of the Twitter streams in a very short 48 hour period. Any musings and other big thoughts are, of course, most welcome.