Rethinking the Way We Tax Charities and Those Who Give to Them
By Howard Gleckman :: December 27th, 2011
It is that time of year when we celebrate with family, remember all we have to be thankful for, and scramble to squeeze out those last few dollars of tax deductible charitable gifts. And that got me thinking about the tax treatment of charities and other non-profits.
It is surely true that we give for more than just the tax write-off. But that deduction is worth big money. In 2008, roughly 40 million taxpayers gave more than $170 billion in charitable donations, according to my Tax Policy Center colleague Joe Rosenberg. About $35 billion or more than 20 percent were non-cash gifts--nearly half in the form of stocks and other investments. And more than 90 percent of that stock came from those making more than $200,000.
The tax treatment of non-profits themselves is generous and complicated. And it is useful to keep in mind that the non-profit sector includes a wide range of organizations. Religious institutions, soup kitchens, symphony orchestras, universities, foundations, trade associations, and think tanks (including TPC’s parent organizations The Brookings Institution and The Urban Institute) are all organized under Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code.
So are some secretive shell organizations that raise and contribute cash on behalf of political candidates and such commercial enterprises as the United States Olympic Committee, the NCAA and, yes, even the National Football League--which reported $8 billion in revenues in 2009.
While many of these non-profits may not accept tax deductible gifts, they still enjoy other tax benefits. They are exempt from federal, state, and local income taxes and in some cases from property and sales taxes. In Boston, for example, non-profit educational and medical institutions were exempt from paying an estimated $390 million in property taxes in 2011. This accounted for one-quarter of Beantown’s total property tax and more than 16 percent of its entire budget, according to Daphne Kenyon and Adam Langley.
Organizing as a non-profit has other advantages as well. For instance, while these entities must report some financial information, their Form 990 disclosures are far less informative than what public companies must report to their shareholders. This has proven to be especially valuable for a new class of campaign finance fronts that operate as non-profit affiliates of Super PACs such as the Republican-oriented Crossroads USA and the Democrat-oriented Priorities USA.
In an environment of severe budget constraint and at a time when policymakers are considering both budget and tax reform, is it time to rethink the role of charities and other non-profits?
Do we want to continue to grant special tax treatment to what are obviously commercial enterprises? Should the Tax Code be used as a tool to hide the names of mega-givers to political candidates or the activities of lobbyists?
Is the tax deduction, which disproportionately benefits high-income givers, the right approach? What about a tax credit or a cap on deductions—an idea that is getting new attention as an element of tax reform.
As government’s role as a social safety net shrinks, the role of non-profits will only grow. Yet, these organizations face their own severe financial problems. The challenge will be to find a way to continue to encourage people to support charities but in a way that is both fair and provides the biggest bang for the fiscal buck.