Blog

Best Selfie Ever

By Grant Oliphant

I loved Ellen DeGeneres' famous Oscar selfie. But if that was the "best selfie ever," this tribute version--taken at the end of last night's WTAE-TV program/telethon, "Living Like Lou" -- is the coolest. The man and woman behind it, our force-of-nature donors Neil and Suzanne Alexander, are using Neil's struggle with ALS as a platform to combat the disease and help those suffering from it.

"Living Like Lou" raised over one hundred thousand dollars for the cause, and did more to raise awareness than we can know. But, as this wonderful photo captures so well, the essence of what happened around this program--and what happens through the power of philanthropy at its best--was a coming together of community. Donors to Neil and Suzanne's Livelikelou.org fund may be supporting a great and sympathetic cause but we are receiving an invaluable gift in return: an occasion for joy, the joy that comes when we respond to suffering by joining hands and hearts in shared hope and action.

 

What Can I Do?

By Grant Oliphant
President and CEO

I had the pleasure of attending a conference this morning on ending gender-based violence. The featured presenter was Jackson Katz, whose presentations on this subject have become an online sensation. Katz’s basic contention is that it is up to men to stop dismissing domestic and other gender-based violence as a “women’s issue” and to embrace it for what it is: a man’s issue.

That bothers some people, including some in attendance this morning, who want to take the discomfort out of the subject by arguing that men can be victims of gender violence, too. That’s true, but as Katz points out, while men are often the target of gender violence, in the case of male and female victims alike the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are men. Until men start expecting different and better behavior from themselves and each other, the problem will persist.

As FISA president and conference host Kristy Troutman so aptly put it, “We can’t build enough women’s shelters to end domestic violence.” Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto got that in his opening comments, when he said, “We as men have a responsibility to end domestic violence” and then challenged the audience to make Pittsburgh a leader in the effort.

During the Q&A period after Katz’s presentation, what struck me was how many of the questions – from men and women alike – seemed to suggest that the problem was bigger than us. They spoke of destructive societal norms, damaging cultural expectations, and systems impervious to change. And they “other-ized” the perpetrators of violence by describing them as deviants, monsters, outside the mainstream and thus beyond our ability to control.

This is so common in community change work. Even those of us who see ourselves as leaders can be shockingly adept at rendering ourselves impotent. Faced with daunting challenges and seemingly overwhelming odds, we take refuge in how “complicated” the problems are, how deeply entwined in a culture of drugs, guns, crime, violent media, peer pressure, family dynamics, poverty, racism, and the whole writhing, twisting mass of social dysfunctions that we use to explain every act of violence and cruelty from internet bullying to murder.

My wife, who runs Pittsburgh’s signature leadership program, tells the story of a participant in one of her cohorts who angrily confronted her at the end of a session. The class was nearing the close of the year-long program and had just been hearing about an important civic issue that apparently upset this gentleman greatly. “This needs to change--what are you going to do about it?” he demanded furiously. She had the presence of mind to turn this into a teachable moment. “I think you’ve missed the point,” she answered. “What are you going to do about it?”

Leadership starts and ends with that one simple question: What am I going to do? Not “What can I make you do?” but rather “What can I do?”

Sure, no one of us has the power to alter the complex social dynamics that encourage gender-based violence. And yet every single social movement in history has begun just that way, with individuals deciding to do what they can, and then banding together to do more, and slowly, step by step, spreading the word and the example of a new norm from the few to the more to the many. Katz makes the convincing case that leadership on gender violence starts with each of us refusing to stand idly by when we see it happening and making it clear that we view gender violence as unacceptable.

That may sound like a slow way to start a movement. But starting there will make all the difference—not only for the women and girls in our lives, but for the men and boys too.

Help fight hunger in our community: The Pittsburgh Foundation launches major appeal

 By Grant Oliphantpgh_gives_180x180_a
President and CEO
The Pittsburgh Foundation

The latest statistics around huge increases in local demand for food assistance make for unsettling and disturbing reading. Behind the data are individuals and families, children and the elderly who do not have enough to eat.

They are our neighbors, a great many of them with jobs that do not pay enough to keep hunger from their doors. For others the crushing impact of the economic recession lingers on: lost jobs, mortgage foreclosures, unpaid utilities and hopes of better things becoming fainter with each passing year.

It is unacceptable for our nation, for all that we have as one of the wealthiest and most influential in the world, that we should harbor the hardship and indignity of hunger on the scale that it has become. It is especially distressing that such a growing and critical need for food assistance in our community should emerge during this, the holiday season.

That is why The Pittsburgh Foundation today launches an urgent community-wide appeal to help food banks in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties meet this unprecedented upsurge in demand. The Foundation has created a match pool, initially of $100,000, and all contributions will be matched dollar-for-dollar. We have set aside additional funds to boost the match pool, if required.

We have taken the unusual step of opening up the Foundation’s on-line charitable giving platform, PittsburghGives – normally activated to host the community’s annual Day of Giving and similar events – to receive credit card donations. The Foundation will pay the credit card transaction fees of approximately three percent to ensure that all donations go towards putting food on the tables of those who need our support.

To place this crisis in perspective, one in three people in the City of Pittsburgh are now living below the poverty line, according to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Demand for assistance increased in some local neighborhoods by as much as 40 percent last month compared with November 2012, and the number of new households seeking assistance is averaging 3,200 per month.

The Westmoreland County Food Bank reports that one in six people in its service area now qualifies for food assistance. Overall demand there is up 13 percent, and the organization may need to reduce the size of food boxes distributed to individuals and families in order to stretch resources farther.

Those who suffer are our community’s most vulnerable – children, senior citizens, veterans and people with disabilities, and as Kris Douglas, Chief Executive with the Westmoreland County Food Bank, points out: “There is a misconception about what the face of hunger really looks like in our community. Most of the people we serve are the working poor. Even though they have jobs, they do not earn enough to feed themselves and their families.”

I urge everybody in our community who can afford to help to contribute to our appeal in addressing this most essential of human needs.

Starting today and until midnight on December 31, we will be accepting credit card donations (minimum of $25 per donation) via the Foundation’s on-line site at www.pittsburghgives.org. Donors may contribute either directly to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank or Westmoreland County Food Bank or to any of the 15 local neighborhood food pantries and affiliate organizations listed on the site.

We must strive to do what our community does so well in joining together to help meet this critical need. Thank you for doing what you can.

Congratulations to Patrick Dowd -- a perfect fit for Allies for Children

By Grant Oliphant
President and CEO

Pittsburgh City Councilman, Patrick Dowd has earned the respect and admiration of our community for getting important things done. Over many years, he has demonstrated his dedication to an ethos of fairness, collaboration and inclusiveness while working tirelessly to help make Pittsburgh a better place for us all.

So I was delighted to learn that Patrick has been chosen to lead a new local nonprofit organization, Allies for Children, that has been formed to take on the critical and challenging issues of child advocacy.

Allies for Children will work to build a much-needed unified and powerful voice for tens of thousands of children in the Pittsburgh region through inspiring policy and programmatic changes. The Pittsburgh Foundation is proud to be among those organizations that identified the need for this organization and that we serve as one of its initial funders.

Few jobs come bigger than protecting and enhancing the lives of our children. And I believe that there is no better-qualified individual to lead this bold and crucial initiative than Patrick who next month will resign his seat on the City Council to take up his full-time position as Executive Director with Allies for Children.

Patrick has a remarkable track record at navigating difficult community issues and bringing together various constituents and organizations leading to consensus and action around policy agendas. As well as serving as an elected official for almost a decade, he is a former high school teacher and was a member of the Pittsburgh Public Schools Board of Education that implemented new policies paving the way to its transformative academic reform strategy and the appointment of former Superintendent, Mark Roosevelt.

Patrick also worked with Carnegie Library on its successful ‘Our Library Our Future’ initiative to help provide sustainable funding for Pittsburgh’s library system, and as a member of the City Council, he has worked to build coalitions around major policy changes. This includes his role as a founder of CONNECT which serves as a forum for discussion and debate between the City Council and its 35 adjacent municipalities.

Above all, Patrick has a long-standing reputation for working with and on behalf of children. When he leaves political office next month, he will embark on his new mission to lead Allies for Children in its work to advance the understanding of children’s needs, to serve as a convener to ensure that those needs are foremost in policy deliberations at local, state and federal levels and to advocate for legislative, administrative and community action for children.

The job will be tough, and the cause is noble. It is no surprise to me that Patrick stepped up to take it on. I congratulate him, and on behalf of the Board and staff of The Pittsburgh Foundation, I wish him every success.

Day of Giving: Minor changes now but possibly more to come

by Grant Oliphant
President and CEO
The Pittsburgh Foundation

When we launched PittsburghGives and the Day of Giving five years ago, none of us envisioned the phenomenon it would become. The program has grown every year since, and all of us involved have been gratified by what our community has accomplished together. The question now is: Where do we go from here?

The question arises because the program has reached an inflection point. Its matching pool cannot sustain the sort of growth we have been experiencing. From barely a thousand donors contributing in our first year, Day of Giving grew to almost 18,000 donors last year, and that rate of increase is likely to continue. Unfortunately, the resources available for our matching pool are limited, and in 2012 the “match” for every dollar donated dropped to a dime. As the match continues to decline in the face of rising demand, it begs the question of how long the program can continue and still be worthwhile.

In discussing this issue with The Pittsburgh Foundation’s Board and staff in recent months, along with nonprofit leaders in focus groups and individual conversations, we have kept returning to the basics. Why did we launch this program in the first place? Have we achieved what we set out to accomplish? And if so, is it time to move on or is there still more to be done?

The Foundation had three explicit goals in launching the Day of Giving.  First, we wanted to create a transparent, regional “one-stop shop” for information on area organizations and agencies. The result is PittsburghGives, which today houses information on over 700 of our region’s nonprofits and is one of our nation’s richest nonprofit databases.

Second, we hoped to increase the capacity of our community’s nonprofits to take advantage of new technology and social media to broaden their support among individual donors and expand their bases of charitable support. Thanks to Day of Giving, thousands of new donor relationships have been established, and the capacity of nonprofits to build on those relationships has increased dramatically.

Third, we wanted to make more people in our community aware of The Pittsburgh Foundation and the work we do. As our region’s major community foundation, we strive to be a vocal advocate for moving our community forward and support our nonprofits in operating at the forefront of trends in philanthropy, such as the rise of on-line giving and increasing demand for transparency. The Day of Giving is a clear demonstration of that and our model has become a benchmark for communities across the country.

In reflecting on these outcomes and the input we have received, we have decided to continue with the program for two more years but to begin to modify it slowly now while signaling that more significant changes lie ahead. Specifically, here is what we are planning:

  1. On behalf of our Board, I am pleased to advise that our Day of Giving this year, set for October 3, 2013, will provide a matching pool of approximately $750,000 for Allegheny County and $100,000 for Westmoreland.
  2. To ensure a robust match percentage for participating organizations, and to honor the program’s original intent, only the first $1,000 that any individual gives per organization will be eligible to participate in the match pool. Gifts over $1,000 will obviously be allowed but only the first $1,000 per individual per organization will share in the match. This compares to last year’s cap of $10,000.
  3. We will host another “regular” Day of Giving in 2014, most likely to coincide with a nationwide program currently being planned for community foundations across the country.  This National Day of Giving, very much built on Pittsburgh’s model, has been tentatively scheduled by its organizers for sometime in the spring of 2014. We will share further details as they develop.
  4. Our Day of Giving program will change in 2015. We are still figuring out how, but the important message for nonprofits now is that they refrain from building an expectation for Day of Giving into their annual budgets for 2015 and beyond.
  5. We will be simplifying the profiles that nonprofits must complete on Pittsburgh Gives to be eligible for Day of Giving in response to comment from local charitable organizations. We are working with our technology partner to shorten profiles and simplify the story that nonprofits are trying to tell.

We are grateful to everyone in our community who has helped to make the Day of Giving the success that it undoubtedly is. Please be assured that going forwards we are focused on how best to preserve and further develop this program as a valued community asset.

Let us set high expectations for next mayor

By Grant Oliphant
President and CEO
The Pittsburgh Foundation

There’s a somewhat cynical assessment of America’s democratic election system that suggests we get the government we deserve. It speaks more to the all-too-frequent bouts of apathy on polling days than it does about the skills, vision and competency or otherwise of our election candidates.

But against the background of the on-going Federal investigation into Pittsburgh’s police operations, and the withdrawal of Luke Ravenstahl, the current incumbent, from our city’s mayoral elections, perhaps now is the time to be asking ourselves: What kind of future leadership do we want for our community?

History tells us that to envision the future, it helps to examine the past and Pittsburgh’s enormous advancements in recent years are unequivocal. Our city’s riverfronts are in the advanced stages of radical transformation, we are a recognized and respected leader of urban design and green building development, and we are at the forefront nationally of addressing urgent reform issues within our public school system.

We have a Cultural District that is second to none and less than two years ago, we were named America’s most liveable city. There is solid ground for optimism with an array of Downtown development projects on the drawing board and continued revitalization programs in our city neighborhoods.

But when the time comes to choose our next mayor – and The Pittsburgh Foundation is without fear or favor on whoever he or she may be – let us expect our new leader to embrace our city’s accomplishments while taking a bold and visionary stand in helping to shape Pittsburgh’s future.

Let us expect Pittsburgh’s civic leadership to nurture an atmosphere where business can thrive, where our hard-won reputation is advanced and where the vulnerable, the underprivileged and the disadvantaged are protected. Let us expect our leadership to work across all areas, including the corporate, nonprofit, academic and public sectors, in effective and inspiring partnerships that will foster innovation, entrepreneurship and creative solutions.

And let us elect a leader who will focus on Pittsburgh’s dominant critical issues, including those around race and poverty.

We should set the highest expectations for our next leader, regardless of who is elected Mayor in November. And regardless of who is elected, let us all pledge to play our part in striving to turn the big dreams we have for our community into reality.

 

Grant Oliphant's Charitable Deduction Testimony

Grant Oliphant, The Pittsburgh Foundation’s President and CEO, submitted the following written testimony calling for the existing charitable tax deduction to be safeguarded. His testimony was presented to a hearing on the Itemized Deduction for Charitable Contributions, House Committee on Ways and Means, U.S. House of Representatives in February, 2013

Congressman Camp, Ranking Member Levin, and other Committee members, thank you for this opportunity to provide written testimony on the deduction for charitable contributions as part of the Committee’s work on comprehensive tax reform.  Especially, I would like to recognize members Jim Gerlach, Mike Kelly, and Allyson Schwartz, from my home state of Pennsylvania.

For the past five years I have served as President and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation, the 13th largest community foundation in the United States.  During this time, we have experienced consistent growth in terms of annual fundraising and currently The Pittsburgh Foundation’s assets are approximately $900 million.  This growth would not have been possible without the generosity and commitment of our donors and in 2012 alone, our donors gave $12.7 million from their funds at the Foundation to support the vital work of over 1,100 nonprofit organizations throughout the Pittsburgh region.  This was in addition to the $44 million in grants provided by The Pittsburgh Foundation to strengthen charitable programs in our local community to improve health care services, safeguard and develop educational opportunities for our children, enhance the arts and cultural activities, and provide human services programs to support the region’s most vulnerable citizens as well as addressing key issues concerning the well-being of our environment and economic development.

I highlight this information at the start of my testimony because unlike private or corporate foundations, community foundations serve a unique and significant role in philanthropy, a role that would be endangered, I believe irrevocably, by any reduction or elimination of the charitable tax deduction, which by its very creation was designed to help facilitate community-based charitable giving that is so well represented by The Pittsburgh Foundation.

Beyond the technical definition as tax-exempt public charities, community foundations are a critical tool in promoting self-sufficiency among nonprofit organizations and our community’s overall health by providing opportunities for donors to participate in place-based initiatives through the creation of funds to meet current and potential needs in perpetuity.

Furthermore, many leading community foundations, like The Pittsburgh Foundation, take on a broader responsibility to encourage and inspire charitable giving among individuals and families in local communities, and to provide professional expertise, guidance and innovative resources that help them to do so.

The community foundation sector in the U.S., collectively with approximately $55.6 billion in assets, advances the philosophy of Pittsburgh’s own Andrew Carnegie, “a person of wealth is an agent of civilization, and philanthropy is a tool for improving civilization while at the same time substituting for radical reforms.”   This philosophy holds true today but will be seriously undermined should individuals feel that they are no longer encouraged to participate in true community-based philanthropy in seeking to make a positive impact in their communities.

Such a level of discouragement would result, I believe, if proposals are successful to amend the current code governing the charitable tax deduction.  Currently the code serves not only as an invaluable monetary incentive, but also as tangible evidence that philanthropic good work is recognized, valued and supported.

The charitable tax deduction is vitally important for community foundations to deliver their missions, especially with the growth of donor-advised funds that allow donors to be part of the philanthropic process in identifying critical community needs and recommending grantmaking support to charitable programs about which they are especially passionate. The Pittsburgh Foundation’s donors are resolute in their belief that by joining with a community foundation, they benefit greatly from a philanthropic partnership, which in turn benefits our local community.

An example of an initiative led by The Pittsburgh Foundation that leveraged individual giving on behalf of the community is the Neighbor-Aid Fund, which attracted support from many local funding partners as well as public donations.  In response to the 2008 economic crisis this emergency fund was designed to support nonprofit organizations striving to meet increased demand for essential human services, specifically, food, housing, transportation, and utilities.  Over $1 million was distributed to nonprofits providing critical “safety-net” services.

Another example of foundation work that can only be successful if our donors support it via giving is The Pittsburgh Foundation’s Day of Giving.  Launched in 2009, the on-line site’s giving events have so far raised more than $21 million for the region’s nonprofit organizations.  Last year alone, this effort raised a total of $8,540,345, an increase of over 31 percent compared with the previous year.  More importantly, 665 nonprofits received contributions from over 17,000 individual donations.

My foundation has an unwavering commitment to further developing its partnerships with donors as well as collaborative and innovative ventures with funding partners at local and national levels in order to maximize grantmaking impact and philanthropic leadership in our region. Together we have pioneered some major achievements in recent years, including reform initiatives within the Pittsburgh Public Schools, and the launch of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program, that provides four-year funding of up to $10,000 per year for city public school students pursuing college and university education.  Like Pittsburgh’s Day of Giving, the Pittsburgh Promise has become an acclaimed model for similar initiatives developed by other foundations across the United States.

Local, state and federal governments are fiscally constrained, severely limiting their ability to mount new programs and even sustain existing ones. This reality combined with increasing demand for assistance from our nonprofit provider community, is further witness that any action that would lead to a reduction or elimination of the charitable tax deduction would have a direct and negative impact on charities and the people they serve.

Thank you for this opportunity to share the important role donors play within the context of a community foundation and I ask that as important tax reform debates continue, the charitable tax deduction be preserved in order to safeguard an essential part of our infrastructure that serves to inspire and enable philanthropy and the great, essential work that it undertakes on behalf of us all.

No cheating on charters: We must be honest about the performance of our schools

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette February 1, 2013 12:14 am
PrintEmailRead LaterBy Grant Oliphant

Wouldn't we all love to respond to a disappointing performance review by changing the measuring tool to give us a better result? Many of us would joyfully toss the bathroom scale out the window in favor of one that knocked off 10 pounds. How about moving the end zone five yards closer so our favorite wide receiver could catch the game-winning throw?

Unfortunately, that's not how things work -- unless you are Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ron Tomalis and you are not pleased with the number of charter schools making Adequate Yearly Progress, the standard set by the No Child Left Behind Act.

In 2011, Mr. Tomalis allowed charter schools to use a more lenient measure to achieve AYP. The result was that 77 of the 156 charter schools in Pennsylvania whose students took the 2012 PSSA math and reading tests met the AYP standard.

Then the federal Department of Education intervened, ruling that Pennsylvania must use the same measure for charter schools as it did for all other public schools. Only 43 made AYP.

A Post-Gazette editorial published Jan. 27 ("Sub-par Options: Charter Schools as a Class Don't Measure Up") delivered a strongly worded rebuke to the Corbett administration for engaging in this kind of tomfoolery and thinking that Pennsylvanians were not paying attention.

I completely agree. What's more, I am dismayed at the disservice that was perpetrated upon the charter school movement, which I believe serves an important role in contemporary public education.

In its original form, charters were designed to increase competition, foster innovation and give parents a choice when their children were not receiving an adequate education from traditional public schools. The promise of creating a vast network of laboratories for innovation remains largely unfulfilled, but much can be learned from experiments like Pittsburgh's City Charter High School and the Environmental Charter School that might improve the quality of education for all Pennsylvania children. This will never happen, though, if decision-makers randomly re-invent the rules to justify their ideology.

I believe in charters as an idea, but our system of public education and the children it serves are not pawns to be manipulated in a political game. Charter schools should be held to the same standards as other public schools so we can tell, honestly, whether they are accomplishing the goals we hope they reach. Stacking the statistical deck in favor of charters tells us only that they have powerful political friends while obscuring the one thing we really need to know: Do they work?

Let's not forget that charters can function without many of the organizational and operational constraints that apply to traditional public schools. They are not subject to collective bargaining agreements. Their infrastructure tends to be newer, simpler and less costly.

Charters also don't share in the same commitment as public systems to educate each and every child who comes in the door regardless of his or her special needs. And yet they get compensated with public dollars as though their costs are the same as the school districts from which they siphon students and resources.

Those are sizeable advantages, and we need to know whether they really result in better educational outcomes. How we measure that should be determined neither by political doctrine nor by creating antipathy between charters and the public school systems they are intended to complement. What we need are clear heads and thoughtful analysis that will keep in sharp focus those who matter most -- our children.

A consistent and reliable measure of student performance must be developed to assess the quality of education our children receive whether they attend charters or traditional public schools. These measures must allow us to determine where our schools are falling short and how we can improve them.

Troubled as our system of public education may sometimes be, it is a landmark achievement of American society. As we work to improve it, we should hold ourselves and our leaders accountable to be fair and truthful about the results of the reforms we explore. Our children and their families depend on this, as does the future prosperity, competitiveness and economic strength of our community and nation.

Grant Oliphant is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation (pittsburgh foundation.org).

To members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly

January 7, 2013

To members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly:

Pennsylvania’s community foundations are universally dedicated to improving the quality of life in communities around the Commonwealth.  Each year we distribute tens of millions of dollars in grants to organizations addressing a wide range of issues in our state.  By administering funds entrusted to us in exactly the way the donor specified, we have an enormous impact on the places where Pennsylvanians live and work.

Through that work, we collectively support a large number of organizations working to address the problems of rape, domestic violence and child abuse.  None of those organizations have resources adequate to the formidable task they undertake.

We write today, therefore, to ask that you support efforts to direct the expenditure of the fund created as a result of the settlement between Penn State and the NCAA solely within Pennsylvania.  This fund represents a unique opportunity to make a significant investment in the capacity of organizations working to prevent horrific violence—and to ease the suffering of those who experience that violence.

While we express no judgment as to the wisdom of the settlement, it is clear to us that funds generated by Penn State ought to be spent on behalf of Pennsylvanians.   If there was ever an institution built on the generosity and farsightedness of Pennsylvanians, including our donors, it is Penn State.  Penn State itself asserts that it is “an instrumentality of the state.”  As such, it is hard to understand how the residents of our state will benefit from having Pennsylvania’s funds spent in California or New Jersey.

There is clearly a need for these funds here in the Commonwealth.  Moreover these funds were clearly generated (whatever their purported source) for the benefit of the residents of the Commonwealth. Those two reasons should be sufficient for our legislature to assure that any funds generated by this settlement benefit the communities of our Commonwealth.

Grant Oliphant
President
The Pittsburgh Foundation

Kevin K. Murphy
President
Berks County Community Foundation

Michael Batchelor
President
The Erie Community Foundation

R. Andrew Swinney
President
The Philadelphia Foundation

Janice R. Black
President/CEO
The Foundation for Enhancing Communities

Charles M. Barber
President and CEO
The Luzerne Foundation

Eric Dewald
Chief Executive Officer
Central Susquehanna Community Foundation

Karen A. Simmons
President/CEO
Chester County Community Foundation

Al Jones
Executive Director
Centre County Community Foundation

Barbara B. Ernico
President
Adams County Foundation

Samuel Bressi
President & CEO
Lancaster County Community Foundation

Christian Maher
Executive Director
Crawford Heritage Community Foundation

Betsie Trew
President & CEO
Washington County Community Foundation

Trenton E. Moulin
Executive Director
Bridge Builders Community Foundations

Linda L. Goodwin
Executive Director
Bucks County Foundation

Larry Haynes
Executive Director
Community Foundation

Bettie B. Stammerjohn
Executive Director
Community Foundation of Greene County

The Charitable Deduction: Who Really Benefits?

Kevin K. Murphy
President, Berks County Community Foundation

Living inside the Washington beltway must be a profoundly disorienting experience. Maybe there's something in the Potomac River, maybe it's just too much time in the world's most self-absorbed echo chamber, or maybe it's just the pressure of too much traffic. Honestly, I don't know.

But there must be something that explains the recent Washington Post editorial by Fred Hiatt that concludes that the federal income tax deduction for charitable contributions "overwhelmingly... benefits the wealthy." Mr. Hiatt goes on to opine that "the rest of the country has to make up the gap."

Huh? Only in the current weird climate of our nation's capital could anyone conclude that the benefits of the charitable deduction accrue to the people who donate money to charitable causes. And only in D.C. could a newspaper imagine that it's news that the people who give the money are -- sit tight now -- people who have money to give.

Since it doesn't seem obvious to the Post, and growing numbers of others hold the misconception that the charitable deduction only benefits the wealthy, perhaps a little clarity from out here where most of the nation lives would help.

People who donate money to the March of Dimes are encouraged to do so by the charitable income tax deduction (which has existed since 1917). The March of Dimes has had some pretty big success with that money. It funded the research that lead to the Salk vaccine that prevents polio. In 1954, there were about 38,500 new cases of polio reported in the United States. Since 1999, there's been one case reported. The World Health Organization reports a global drop in new cases of 99 percent since 1988. I'm pretty sure the beneficiaries of the charitable gifts made to the March of Dimes are all the people who didn't contract polio this year.

There's a little town north of where I live called Bethel. Sitting at the base of the Appalachian Mountain range, Bethel's population would be described as somewhere in the working-class to working-poor range. More than 40 percent of the children who go to the elementary school there qualify for free or reduced lunches. There's not much in Bethel, but they do have a library. It's only about 1,500 square feet, but it's packed with children after school and it circulates about 150,000 books a year. For many in the community, it's also the only place to access the Internet. Last year, the people in Bethel raised more than $40,000 to keep their library open, and I'll bet some of those donors took the charitable deduction. But the beneficiaries, it seems to me, are the children whose reading levels improved and the people who were able to find critical information about jobs, health care and perhaps even read The Washington Post online.

This list could go on and on. Outside of the Washington D.C. orbit, every town in America, in fact, every American can tell you who benefits from the charitable deduction -- or perhaps when they themselves benefited from it.

And anyone with, as my late mother would have said, "the common sense that God gave a goat" can understand that the charitable deduction doesn't "benefit" the giver. If I have $100 and I keep it, I have $100. If I give that $100 to the local food bank and, if I were entitled to the 35 percent deduction that Mr. Hiatt finds so offensive, I'd still be out $65. The charitable deduction would reduce my cost of giving, but it sure doesn't make money for me. What that $100 does accomplish, though, is to fill backpacks with food for some of the many children in Reading, Pa., who live in poverty. Those children take the backpacks home each Friday after school, ensuring they have something to eat over the weekend until they come back to school on Monday.

Mr. Hiatt concludes his editorial with a list of some of the choices that Congress will have to make and the comment "You need to keep all of them in mind as you decide how much you want to pay to help renovate that hospital wing with the billionaire's name above the door." Out here in Reading, very far from the beltway, we're all very grateful to Terry McGlinn and his family for donating the money for the McGlinn Family Regional Cancer Center at Reading Hospital. The center is a specially designed facility where all of the specialists who treat cancer are located together, making it easier to create and implement a holistic plan for patient care. Every year, the center treats about 1,600 cancer patients. One year that group included my wife. If you asked my sons who the beneficiaries of the McGlinn's generosity were, they'll say "we are because we still have Mommy."

That's how we understand the charitable deduction out here, a long way from Washington. Perhaps the folks from the Post should come visit.

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