Who Will Stand for All of Philanthropy?

What comes to mind when you hear the word philanthropy?

Most of us know the Greek origin of the word suggests an altruistic love for mankind. Many of us were taught Robert Payton’s elegant definition: voluntary action for the public good. For philanthropoids, philanthropy consultants, and donors who want to keep up with the cool kids, the word has picked up the expectations of “strategic” and “better than charity.” (Check out this post from the Alliance magazine and just about any talk by Bill Schambra for more on the last point).

I’ve been mulling these definitions over after reading about Rolling Jubilee, the new Occupy Wall Street spin-off. The 501(c)(4) nonprofit uses crowdsourced gifts to buy up distressed consumer debts for pennies on the dollar and then forgives the debts. Progressives and Conservatives have both lauded and both questioned it (I’ll take that as a good sign).

But, does Rolling Jubilee sound like “philanthropy”?

Donors who voluntarily give out of compassion for the less fortunate? Check. Donors who choose to stand with a cause? Check. Donations made without regard to tax deduction? True for most of history and most of the world, and true for 70% or so of U.S. taxpayers who don’t itemize. Donations made without questioning if the strategy is effective or if it produces the best outcomes for the beneficiaries? Very true.

To me, Rolling Jubilee sounds like the basic definitions of philanthropy. Why does that matter? Because of a bigger question:

Who will stand up for the broader definition of philanthropy?

Imagine these scenarios*:

  • Congress proposes to force Rolling Jubilee, Awesome Foundation chapters, and Kickstarter to submit names of their donors so that gift taxes can be imposed on contributors.
  • The IRS investigates StartSomeGood and other for-profit crowdfunding platforms dedicated to the public good, and then suggests new, burdensome reporting regulations.
  • A state chooses to strengthen laws designed to protect donors but actually harms recipients that aren’t traditional nonprofits and even limits donors’ choices for voluntary action.

Would the Independent Sector lobby against these changes? Its values and vision would seem to include all forms of philanthropy but its mission narrows its work to nonprofits. The Council on Foundations recognizes the “importance of philanthropy toward the public good” but its public policy agenda serves traditional grantmakers. The Alliance for Charitable Reform works to preserve the rights of donors but only for “vigorous private giving to charities.” The national groups organizing efforts to protect the charitable deductions really only serve those donors who itemize and 501(c)(3) public charities. (OK, they also serve estate planning attorneys, wealth planners, and savvy insurance salespeople, but that’s beside the point.)

My point, and I do have one…
I think those organizations – and the rest of us who work in the philanthropy field – should consider going back to the definitions of philanthropy espoused by the ancient Greeks and Bob Payton. Voluntary action for the public good (aka the altruistic economy or financing social good) is taking on many new forms, accelerated by technology and how Millennials choose to do good. And, generous people are choosing to act as free agents, bypassing traditional work with nonprofits and foundations.

Advocating for public charities and traditional foundations misses out on too much of the voluntary giving action. It leaves out the large majority of generous Americans who don’t itemize or even file taxes. It leaves out your kids, your neighbors, and your grandparents – people who care about others and deserve not to have their philanthropy seen as somehow less important than “real philanthropy.” They should be concerned about current laws and policies impacting charitable giving and we nonprofit and philanthropy professionals should be concerned about regulations that would impact our neighbors’ and relatives’ abilities to give, regardless of deductibility or organizational form.

I’m convinced the whole field of philanthropy has to stand together or we’ll be quickly pitted against each other in future debates about local, state, and federal tax revenues.

But will we stand together?  What do you think?


* If these questions get your philanthropy geek juices flowing, check out the ReCoding Good Project at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and its series in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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