This week marks the 100th anniversary of the law exempting charitable activity from taxation — now referred to as Section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code. Over the last century, this exemption contributed, more than any other factor, to the development of a broad and diverse network of charitable organizations and foundations that today raise more than $300 billion annually. Given in large and small donations, this money supports the causes that matter to people living across the country: improving schools, feeding families, funding medical research, stewarding our air and water, and doing so much more.
Philanthropy has the unique ability to work across sectors, build consensus, and pool resources to make strategic investments in our communities. Leveraging private dollars and a shared interest in advancing the common good, philanthropic and charitable organizations remain open-for-business even when the government isn’t.
The current system of charitable incentives remains an important component of American life because it allows private dollars to go directly to those who need them most. It allows individuals to decide which issues matter and what their priorities are for the communities in which they live.
While furloughs shutter crucial government programs, charitable and philanthropic organizations carry on steadfast as always in their commitments to their communities. In a recent speech I gave before community foundation colleagues, I noted that “far from looking to the next business cycle, or the next election cycle, philanthropy is looking to the next generation.”
This anniversary provides an opportunity for us to consider the impact that charitable giving has had on our lives. A century ago, policy makers understood the important role that all Americans could play in shaping the fates of their own communities. They created the deduction because they knew that government could not always provide the right solution, and they wanted to encourage people to take an active role in building a better society.
The past hundred years of philanthropy leave us with an impressive legacy. It seems strange, but by the nature of the times we live in, we find ourselves needing to fight to preserve this fundamental and noble tradition. No one can say when Congress will finally resolve this budget mess, but let’s all hope that when they do they don’t rob our communities of philanthropic support.
Vikki Spruill is president and CEO of the Council on Foundations.