Op/ed: Philanthropy is caught in a game of politics
By Hugh Ralston on November 11, 2011
Would Congress truly cap the charitable deduction as part of a “grand bargain” for deficit reduction and public investment? Are community foundations — organizations that are rooted in a single region — relevant to the challenges of a globalized society?
Both questions were raised in dramatic fashion at our recent national community foundations conference. Both have relevance as our region celebrates National Philanthropy Day by honoring distinguished philanthropists Leslie Ridley-Tree and Bill and Elise Kearney.
The recent jobs bills — rejected by the Senate — originally called for capping the value of the charitable deduction for those earning above a certain level, the fourth time such a cap has been proposed in recent years. Philanthropy has been referred to by some in Congress as a “$50 billion earmark” as demands for more transparency about charitable gifts have increased on Capitol Hill.
In spite of the importance of addressing long-term fiscal imbalances, fooling with the philanthropic engine strikes me as short-sighted and an assault on a tradition deeply rooted in our nation’s history. The tax-advantaged position of charitable giving and the impact from institutions that carry out its missions are woven into the DNA of our nation.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his 19th century study of America that the charitable sector made change manifest in America. In France, change was imposed by the state, and it came from the aristocracy in England. But in
America, he noted, change arose from charitable associations of individuals who worked together — as citizens of this republic — to improve the community.
This is exactly what a community foundation does: We bring people and charitable capital together to take on the tough problems, helping those whose needs are not met by public dollars. We work with others to build bridges between the private and public sector, reaching beyond the widening expectations gap of what the public purse will sustain.
In Ventura County, the passions of donors are translated into investments in the work of local nonprofits and into scholarships that help students gain the skills to succeed in the global economy. We see it when donors pool contributions to help farm workers access decent housing, to put first-generation Latino students on the college track, to teach women how to prevent domestic violence and to provide training to local nonprofit leaders so they can succeed.
In this past year, we helped a father diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, raise funds to help families facing the same bleak diagnosis send their kids to college. A grant from our Women’s Legacy Fund to a local agency helped seven elderly women avoid eviction. Projects created by local artists have enlivened public places, including the Ventura County Animal Shelter. Charitable donations to the Ventura County Together collaborative, where our foundation serves as fiscal sponsor, have helped thousands get food, medical care and remain in their houses.
With funds given to Ventura County Community Foundation’s discretion, we have invested in a local organization working with gay youth and a Santa Paula homeless program. We helped give nursing students the tools to succeed in a competitive academic environment and started a housing trust fund to expand supply in the region. We helped feed and shelter abused horses, gave scholarships to talented young artists and sustained community dialog about long-term sustainability and workforce education.
Charity begins at home. And across the region charity has spawned a network of donors who invest in a nonprofit system that bridges the gulf between public dollars and private disasters. Their generosity nurtures not only institutions but families. Their values remind us a community is more than simply an address.
Are community foundations relevant? The charitable dollars our donors have entrusted to us to invest for the long term permit distributions every year to keep our nonprofit sector functioning, strengthening that all important common good and earning our privileged tax position. It also shows that, working together, we refuse to let the challenges of the day rob us of the power or capital to build communities which reflect our deepest values.
• Hugh J. Ralston is the president and CEO of the Ventura County Community Foundation. For more information, visit www.vccf.org.