Give ‘Til It Feels Good

Michelle Singletary’s syndicated column, which appears in the Miami Hurled, originates in the Washington Post.  On Sunday she wrote about charitable giving and tax deductions.  Her reasoning reflects a real dumb mistake that is often voiced by people with comfortable incomes:

My husband and I tithe to our church, meaning we give 10 percent of our income. We also donate money to give-a-damn-logo-290x300various charities.  Our giving results in a tax break because we itemize on our tax return.

Would we give less if we didn’t have the tax deduction?  I’m confident we wouldn’t.  We give because we believe it’s the right thing to do for folks who are fortunate enough to have money to give. Having the tax deduction is a bonus, but one that has never driven us to give more or less. I’m actually a bit turned off when a charity tries to persuade us to give by overly emphasizing the standard phrase, “Your donation is tax deductible.”  —  Washington Post

Let’s be perfectly transparent right up front: were it not for the deduction provided by IRS regulations, charitable giving in this country would plummet, and reflect the level of charitable giving in every other country —  dismal, tiny, and ineffective.

As a career non-profit executive (with the 3-digit bank account to prove it), I also wonder precisely  which charities she means when she complains about those that “overly emphasize” the tax deduction.  I don’t know of any that do any more that provide the 1-line statement.

The fact is, the tax deduction makes American philanthropy viable, the envy of the world.  Remove that option, which is one of many proposals currently under review as BHO and John Boner position themselves and their parties for budget negotiations, and kiss good-bye support for such philanthropic endeavors as the arts, the environment, education, and civil rights.  Is this a better system, a better world, a finer outcome?

She goes on:

…..33% of donors said they would reduce their giving if the charitable deduction didn’t exist. The figure climbed among key giving groups, with 40 percent of donors ages 40 to 59 saying they would reduce their giving….I find that statistic shameful. You should give with no expectation of a reward if it’s truly a selfless act.

Shameful, she says.  Shameful.  Here’s the faulty reasoning behind that elitist attitude.

First, she assumes that donors taking advantage of the deduction could afford to do so without it.  So that anybody who contributes $100 or $1,000 to the Elves Gnomes Leprechauns  Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society could do so even if he or she couldn’t deduct that amount from their gross income.  Sorry, Michelle, that’s not how it works out here in the real world.  If people need that cash to pay their taxes instead of supporting their favorite charity, they’re going to pay their taxes.  That’s the law.

Second, she makes the mistake of reasoning that a necessary condition is the same as a sufficient condition.  People aren’t giving to charity because they get a deduction, they’re giving because the deduction makes it possible for them to do so.  While their motives are pure, it’s because of the law that they can act on them.  The pragmatism that underlies their reasoning makes their action no less a “selfless act.”

Finally — and perhaps I’m just being nasty here (which is what you’ve all been waiting for) — let’s look at the writer’s tithing.  Is it truly “selfless devotion” that motivates her tithing to her church? Does she believe in an after-life, when her soul is evaluated for her earthbound conduct and spirituality, and that giving to charity is a way to ensure her Eternal Bliss?  Perhaps her own charitable activity is nothing more than an investment to ensure the happiness of her ultimate reward, which would be as selfish and shameless as the tax-conscious contributions she condemns.

I’m all about charitable giving, and I don’t give a shit why you support your favorite charity.  Just do it.  You’re doing a world of good no matter how big an asshole you are, which is as good a trade-off as anybody can ever hope for.

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38 Responses to Give ‘Til It Feels Good

  1. The Masspube says:

    Thank you for your post today. I truly learned something about giving. Until I read the article. I had no idea you were supposed to put money into the plate when they pass it around during church. I’ve been taking out of it for years. That’s why I’m so well dressed! In fact , that’s why I always sit in the back row. Thank you. Movin’ on up…to the front of the church.

  2. Neil, a Christian Soul says:

    Your suggestion that the writer’s tithing is buying her way into heaven disrespects not just this writer, but Christians everywhere who take their Faith and Church seriously, as they should. There is nothing wrong with anticipating God’s favor in return for righteous conduct. Neither she nor I or anybody else know our fate regarding the Afterlife, but your attitude and remarks sugest you’re going to hell. I will pray for you nonetheless.

    • Beardsley says:

      Niel: About the nicest way of putting this is that you’re a very shallow thinker. Put as simply as possible: If your ONLY motivation for giving to charity is to benefit yourself, then even if the act itself is good, it’s selfish. And while there are perfectly moral reasons to behave selfishly, giving to charity, in my judgment, is not a good one. My experience is that many people donate to their church out of fear and intimidation, not charity. That’s a very sad state of affairs, and morally unacceptable.

      • Don says:

        Your experience? “Fear and intimidation?” Did you take a survey?

        I’ve been in a lot of churches. MY experience is that the plea for money is generally tied to the good work the church does, or the need for a new roof. I also see pitches on television, generally on the same basis. I have never heard anyone tie donating to a church to hellfire.

        There’s a reason for that: anyone who would try to intimidate money out of a congregation would be an idiot – that would be the way to secure the least amount of money, because no one would give more than the minimum. And if you don’t say what the money is going to be used for, people won’t give. They aren’t that stupid.

        I’m not sure what motivates you to say anything of the things in your post. It is fairly difficult to conceive of a primarily “selfish” motive for charity, except if the gift is very public (which church giving is generally not). Certainly you have no claim to call anyone else a “shallow thinker.”

      • Beardsley says:

        Don: Raised Catholic, we were told routinely that NOT supporting “The One True Church” was a sin for which god would punish us eternally. My own parents gave out of fear, turning me off to religion at a very early age. Well, that and their attitude toward masturbation. And we were hardly unqiue. That’s my survey.

        Obviously it doesn’t have to be that way, and isn’t always. I do not suggest that it is. I’ve met some wonderful clergy and lay people whose grasp of philanthropic endeavor is exemplary. But even today, I hear some very sad tales.

        The principle is, if your primary objective when making charitable contributions is to improve your own position, whether it’s taxes, social position, or pure ego, then your gift is fairly described as selfish. If your gift is to buy your way into heaven, it’s corrupted.

        Best I can do to explain it, if you’re interested.

      • Don says:

        Beardsley:

        I appreciate your response. I was raised Catholic as well. I am now Buddhist. I have a sister who is a fanatical evangelical.

        What you describe is completely alien to my experience. I don’t know how you can decide what someone’s motivation is. In Christianity, followers are exhorted to be like Christ, to do go things even if those things don’t make them happy. The reason given is not just eternal hellfire, but spiritual development, the satisfaction of fulfilling a duty, the rewards of supporting a community, etc. Given all of this, I really don’t see how you can say that anyone’s motivation is solely or primarily saving his or her skin from hellfire. Again, I have never heard anyone say this in a church, on television, or anywhere else, because it seems a very strange thing. Perhaps we view human nature differently.

      • Beardsley says:

        Don: The portrait of Christianity you present sounds consistent with the principles of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus as many understand them. Some might call this “enlightened.” If all Believers took them to heart, the Church and entire world would be a much finer place. But sadly, they don’t. And there’s no need to reference the Inquisition, just look at the Christian Coalition or Westboro Baptist.

        I still meet many people who tell me that their participation in and support of their church rested on fear for their own future, that they were told often that “god rewards good deeds and punishes sinners, and giving charity was one of those good deeds. Even if the message wasn’t “Give to Church or Go to Hell” in so many words, it was clear. As I noted, that was my childhood experience as well. We were terrified.

        There’s also part 2 of this: http://catholicbridge.com/catholic/indulgences.php

      • Don says:

        Beardsley:

        We all see what we want to see. Westboro Baptist Church has 40 members. The Christian Coalition isn’t a church, but a political organization reflecting beliefs of certain members of certain churches. Many churches have regressive social stances and negative teachings. But I don’t see a case for saying that the negative clearly dominates the positive or that people are religious largely out of fear. These are subjective, unmeasurable judgments, and one’s own experience can color them. I believe in people a little more, and I believe that religion is largely pursued freely and with good intentions.

      • Beardsley says:

        Don:
        You say, “But I don’t see a case for saying that the negative clearly dominates the positive or that people are religious largely out of fear.” I largely agree with you. I have never maintained that this state of affairs dominates, only that I have seen many instances of this over my career. And to be transparent, there are many fewer stories now than 25 years ago.

        You also say, “I believe that religion is largely pursued freely and with good intentions.” In this country — in the west — I suspect you are correct, and as I noted previously, many of the finest persons of my acquaintance have been clergy and lay people who take seriously their religious convictions. I respect and admire them, even though I don’t beieve as they do — and really, isn’t that the formula for getting on together?

        Speaking of: By your other remarks I see we’re very much agreed on charitable giving, as is the blog’s author.

      • Don says:

        Beardsley,

        Civility….respect….agreement…the internet….on religion….hmmm….

        What are you trying to pull here?

  3. Sue Perfluous (not my real name) says:

    Another view on this is donors whose interest.in the cause is secondary to their interest in the benefits and social standing that accompanies their gift. That happens all the time here in Florida, where charities’ budgets depend on special events that cost half of what is raised. People dress up and go to party pose and network. Sometimes they have no idea what the fundraiser is for. At least when you give to your church, you know who’s getting it and why.

  4. Matt says:

    Re: “people aren’t giving to charity *because* they get a deduction” – that’s only true some of the time. You don’t have to turn over many rocks to find RW loons who do exactly that, on the basis that giving money to their local God-botherer means it doesn’t fund “welfare queens”.

    • 'Nonymous says:

      Matt: How many people do you know who actually do that? And do you also know liberals know who give to charities because they don’t want to fund racist warmongering capitalists? Is that okay, or it as wrong and evil as the RW loons you’re finding under rocks?

  5. Dan says:

    These people also know that part of the money they tithe will go towards “supporting” the church infrastructure – support, as in buying up real estate, with tax-free money, that the church can use for financial leverage, in other deals. Some of it probably ends up in the stock market as well, as churches try to maximize their funds. I just wonder what Jesus would say about that.

    • Key Liam says:

      Far be it from me to suggest what Jesus would say or do, but I suppose if a church invested to maximize its funds ( as many do), and used those funds to house and feed the poor, provide counseling for parishioners in distress, underwrite educational programs, etc., he’d be okay with it. Which many also do. And some don’t. But the point is that isn’t the funding in itself, it’s the motivation behind it, which varies.

  6. Frank in Midtown says:

    It isn’t charity if all it does is pay for the hvac and the choir leader. the vast majority of “religous” givings never leave the local facility and only support that facility, and amount to nothing more than paying dues to a country club for like minded neighbors. There is almost no charity to be found in “religous” givings.

    • Rob says:

      Well said Frank, and now those religious club’s do not pay real estate taxes, which fund fire, police and schools.

    • Neil, a Christian Soul says:

      I disagree, and my own church is a perfect example. Every year we analyze our budget and present it to the congregation for approval. No more than 25% goes to administration and facilities. The rest supports our community service programs, which emphasizes youth, e.g., Come to Jesus social events, working with schools to encourage Bible study, “Counseling for Christ ” to cure homosexuality and gender confusion, etc. Ours is one of thousands of American Evangelical churches devoted to the next generation of Believers, which we believe is God’s instructions to America. This most certainly is charity as defined in the Bible.

      • Turdbug says:

        Ah yes. There is nothing like Christian charity for Christians and potential Christians. The rest of the world doesn’t deserve it? Name one Evangelical TV personality who iisn’t maximizing solicitation of money to put in there own pockets. Oh the church actually owns the jet and the $2000 suits, and the mansions, but it’s the preacher/con-artist who lives in and uses these luxuries on a daily basis. Where’s Christ’s teachings? In the gutter with the rest of the sewage. Religion be damned!

      • Neil, a Christian Soul says:

        T-Bug: The teachings of the Lord are everywhere, but it is up to each soul to take them into his heart and embrace them as Given Truth. Clearly you’re consumed with anger and grief to speak this way. All I can do is pray for you, and that I shall do.

  7. “Envy of the world”? Give me less tax-breaks and higher taxes any day – every other advanced country in the world has it better when a competent, efficient government runs the show. And all the stats prove it.

    Our system does add a little flexibility to responding to emerging needs – but at the cost of:

    1) Uneven and sporadic funding on infrastructure for ongoing needs (think of firemen holding out boots at intersections to get cash to run a fire-station or a bake sale/concert so a cancer patient can get treatment to live);

    2) Pet projects funded on emotion by millionaires and billionaires, which is great when you’re the disease of the week but when something new comes along you’re screwed. Really, does Donald trump seem the expert on which children should get competent medical treatment? Remember how AIDS funding dried up?

    3) Research proves that most “charitable” funding goes to people in the donors’ own class/community as mentioned above (“amount to nothing more than paying dues to a country club for like minded neighbors.”) Some 10% goes to actual “charity”. Think all the private schools, private clubs, “service” organizations, arts/environmental groups (not typically low-income), etc. Remember how John McCain’s foundation only disbursed funds to the exclusive “non-profit” school his own spawn were attending? You can even donate to “National Review Online (NRO)” which is funded by the National Review Institute – the “non-profit” that supports the “magazine” (although we all know what a bastion of special needs that place is).

    Lastly, we have to pay for administration and fundraising for all of them – which does create jobs even though they frequently pay poverty level wages to their staff who “care enough” about the cause to accept them.

    We would be far better off if we destroyed the tax deduction and just had those rich bastards pay their fair share of taxes and actually addressed social problems head on.

    • Piles says:

      “…. every other advanced country in the world has it better when a competent, efficient government runs the show. And all the stats prove it.”

      I’d like to see the stats that lead you to this insane conclusion. Besides, where do you find a “competent efficient government”? You truly advocate government control of American religious and cultural institutions as a better system?

      That’s just for starters, but I got work to do.

      • I’m busy too, so I’ll just lead with “Health”:
        “U.S. Ranks Last Among Seven Countries on Health System Performance Based on Measures of Quality, Efficiency, Access, Equity, and Healthy Lives”

        http://www.commonwealthfund.org/News/News-Releases/2010/Jun/US-Ranks-Last-Among-Seven-Countries.aspx

        Control of Religious institutions? No.
        Governemnt already supports many cultural institutions anyway.

      • Piles says:

        Harry: I will gladly go along with these findings regarding health care. I will not extend that single example to a general declaration that those governments, or any governments, are competent and efficient overall or in general. Even so, handing over control of cultural institutions — which include literature and the performing arts — to government invites censorship and repression. Even at the cost of efficiency, which I won’t concede, it would never be worth it. Never.

    • Squathole says:

      I can’t even make sense of this statement: “Research proves that most “charitable” funding goes to people in the donors’ own class/community…” First of all, charitable funding doesn’t go to people, it goes to non-profit entities. When donors give to (e.g.) American Cancer Society, are they donating to people in their own class? How would they know? How would YOU know? Are you inventing your own research?

      • Hmmm. “Goes to” means “benefits”.

        When donors give to (e.g.) American Cancer Society, are they donating to people in their own class?

        Generally, yes. Interestingly, low-income people are far more generous proportionally than the rich. But, yeah, their neighbors are getting the benefit.

        How would they know? How would YOU know?

        Generally, I do research. Google is a great place to start.

        Here are some statistics:
        http://www.nps.gov/partnerships/fundraising_individuals_statistics.htm

        http://www.npr.org/2012/08/20/158947667/study-reveals-the-geography-of-charitable-giving

        http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2011/12/04/why-give-charity/yk1Kk9Ovbhp5VHQxPP7BsM/story.html

      • Don says:

        Harry R. Sohl,

        After waiting for your stats, that’s the best you’ve got?

        Q: When peopel give to the America Cancer Society, are they donating to people in their own class?

        A. Unless there is a higher incidence of cancer in higher income people or a restrictive policy in the American Cancer Society that makes its research only available to upper income people, obviously not.

        Yes, it’s interesting that lower income people give a greater percentage of their income than higher income individuals (of course, with the distribution of wealth as skewed as it is, that may leave the bulk of charitable giving to the upper incomes). And it is true that people, not surprisingly, give locally. That is an argument against leaving private charity as a complete solution to social problems, not for destroying private charities.

        Using google to find irrelevant statistics that don’t support your point isn’t research.

    • Squathole says:

      Hey Harry: No statistics, I see. No surprise. You don’t have them.

      And how did health care pop up? That’s not an area in this country where charitable giving has a whole lot of impact — its failures are a condemnation of our private enterprise system screwing it up, not philanthropy.

      The NEA, which distributes Federal money to the arts, gave out less than $4 Million in grants last year. That’s a tiny fraction of the private money annually raised by cultural institutions. So yes, the government already supports cultural institutions, just not very well.

    • Don says:

      Harry R. Sohl:

      I imagine there’s a reason you don’t cite your research. It’s one thing to point out that charitible giving sometimes goes to partisan political organizations or specific sectarian religious causes, or to the cause that was most recently in the news. It’s another to make it a question of social class, and cite petty partisan examples like NRO. There are huge charities – the United Way, Salvation Army, American Cancer Society, etc. I would need some pretty solid evidence to accept that all of these – and you can find lists of large charities and their budgets and administrative ratings all over the internet – comprise just 10% of charitable giving.

      The government has a large role in supporting humanitarian endeavors. Private charity does have vanity and sectarian elements, so there is probably too much money given to museums and universities when compared to that given to the homeless and mentally ill. There may be an argument for increasing the public role, but there isn’t any reason to deny that private charity is effectively delivering billions and billions of dollars to those in need. If we incentivize anything under the tax code, I would think charity would be at the top of the list.

  8. I have emailed you that my replies with statistics are awaiting moderation.

  9. Please edit my 8:49 pm reply to state “we’ll collect far more than $300 billion”.

    • Squathole says:

      Harry: Thanks for your responses which I’m just seeing now. No idea why the comment went to “awaiting moderation” status: WordPress has a mind of its own.I’ll review the links you sent and get back — there’s a lot to chew around on this topic.

    • Squathole says:

      @Harry: Interesting and comprehensive as they are, I don’t see where any of these data support your contention that charitable funding benefits people in the donors’ own class. Even so, while there’s no doubt that many donors contribute to non-profit organizations that they themselves patronize, such as museums, orchestras, etc., (a) this is not universally true, and (b) people of various economic classes support these same agencies. The Cause more relevant than the Class , and the common factor is donors’ interests. Is this surprising? Or immoral?

      The data DO support a well-known axiom in philanthropy: People give locally. They support charities that impact their own cities and issues that affect them personally. But many donors also support overseas missions, both religious and secular, which further dilutes your contention (unsupported by these data) that Some 10% goes to actual “charity”.

      The data aside — and again, I appreciate its provision — here’s where we differ most: “We would be far better off if we destroyed the tax deduction and just had those rich bastards pay their fair share of taxes and actually addressed social problems head on.”

      As I pointed out in my original post, all research indicates that eliminating the tax deduction would severely reduce charitable giving. I have seen zero evidence that any revenue generated by tax increases under discussion today would be earmarked for programs and agencies currently supported by charitable contributions. While I agree with your sentiment that the wealthiest earners in this country have enjoyed lower taxes for a while at the expense of the lower and middle class, I do not agree that the “resolution of social problems” — quite a large category, from poverty and crime to education and health — is best left to government. Government has a role, but the The Independent Sector has been far more efficient and effective in many areas, and would do even better if more generously supported.

      I also agree with Piles’ assessment of government, and share his concern that subjecting cultural institutions to government oversight would lead to censorship and dull-brained conservatism. Our state and Federal authorities have banned books, condemned visual arts, prohibited performers from presenting, and rammed religion up our asses. It’s the American effin way.

      Thanks again for visiting — I hope you’ll respond as well as drop by again.

  10. Barbara Ganousch says:

    “if you eliminated charitable deductions, that means every hospital and university and not-for-profit agency across the country would suddenly find themselves on the verge of collapse.” — Barack Obama just this week.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/05/us/politics/limiting-tax-deductions-may-work-but-not-easily.html?ref=politics

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