Suppose You Want to Donate to Charity

And you want your dang tax deduction, so you’re not going to drop it all in begging boxes.

Infinity is at your door, in your snail mailbox, in your e-inbox, sobbing out its stories, hand infinitely outstretched. How do you choose?

By sob story? Please. All Causes Are Worthy. This is not a fact, not a truism, not even a factoid. It is a lie, but it is useful. If you assume that all causes are worthy, you free yourself to make your choice on other grounds. So forget what’s important to other people. Everything, but everything, is important to someone. What’s important to you?

Suppose you belong to a church, clearly a worthy cause. Need you look further? Well, yes. Some churches believe in sharing. And some of what they believe in sharing is the name, address, telephone numbers, and bra size of every possible potential donor, let alone the confirmed ones. So find out your church’s policy about that before making your donation. The Quakers, by the way, never, ever share their donors’ information. That would violate the testimony of stewardship. (It would also give Quakers, a notoriously skinflint lot, serious motive to consider where else to put their donations.)

But I digress. Are you willing to have your information shared with All Worthy Causes? If not, find out the policy before signing a check. (You can always donate anonymously, but if you want your tax deduction,  you have to work at it. And of course you can probably make a deal with your clergyman.) Particularly egregious in this way are the American Indians and the sheriffs and police and fire associations. Give one set a check for twenty bucks and your phone will ring forever. And some of them are not registered charities. Sometimes you’re just contributing beer money.

Here’s a consideration that drew a lot of attention in the middle late twentieth century: how much of the donation actually goes to the cause and how much to administration? United Way was at one time practically a taxing authority because of its standing as a recipient of donations. Its agents were employers, and some of them leaned hard. United Way of the United States died in 2009 after a lingering illness; its decline was precipitated by the information that most of the money was going to fat cat salaries and other administrative outrages. It is still a good question, though, whether you’re helping pay for someone’s Mercedes. [One may look at the tax returns online. I tried ‘990 search’ and found http://foundationcenter.org/find-funding/990-finder. This site included help on understanding these tax returns.  —wld]

Those are the two things that I see going wrong with donations: my good deed will be heavily punished with further solicitations (just when I’ve given away what I can part with, too)  and my money will not in fact go to a worthy cause. You may have some other issue. If so, tease it out and figure out how to address it.

A third consideration is how much the organization actually needs the money. George School, an independent Quaker boarding high school in Newtown, Pennsylvania, several years ago received a donation of $20 million, to “trickle” in over some years. And what happened next? Its other donations went UP. Yes, up. Some morons couldn’t wait to jump on that bandwagon. Here’s what did NOT happen: tuition did not go down, nor did—as far as I can tell—tuition aid. But the week after the announcement, the construction machinery rolled on to campus. And Harvard’s endowment is in the billions. It doesn’t actually need more.

Some people give money to New York  University. Some give money to Penn State, UCLA—generally but not always their alma mater. However, these are actually donations to a government entity. All organizations receiving tax money are branches of government, because the government does not distribute money without strings. If you want your charitable donations to be de facto tax payments, go ahead. Give to your alma mater. Just know what you’re doing.

Next: Bill is going to write about getting that tax deduction. And I’m working on a plug for independent schools as  not only worthy but likely to produce dividends.

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