Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

New “Faith in Giving” Coalition

Stanley Carlson-Thies


June 28, 2013

By Stanley Carlson-Thies

An earlier version of this article was published in the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance eNewsletter for Faith-Based Organizations on June 18, 2013.

Faith-based service organizations, like other nonprofits, depend on private donations to help fund their services. As such, they rely on tax incentives, like the federal deduction for charitable contributions, to encourage sustained giving. However, because they are religious organizations, they may have distinct interests in the fight that has broken out in Washington, DC and in state and local politics concerning tax breaks for donations and tax breaks for nonprofits themselves.

That's the premise of a new coalition just forming, tentatively called the "faith in giving" coalition, headed up by Rhett Butler, government liaison for the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, and David Wills, President of the National Christian Foundation. This emerging coalition takes into account that faith-based organizations, without neglecting to make common cause with other nonprofits, need to be mindful of several important concerns that are specific to them as religious entities.

There are at least four areas where faith-based organizations may have concerns that differ somewhat from those of secular nonprofits and from the public policy agendas of major nonprofit advocacy organizations:

1. Many faith-based organizations are extremely dependent on giving by individuals; for various reasons, they receive little of their income from government sources, fees for service, corporate donors, or foundations. As such, their income is disproportionately affected by changes in the tax incentives for individual giving, whereas other nonprofits may be more concerned about changes in government grants or declines in corporate giving due to economic changes. However, this disproportionate dependence on individual giving may not be accurately reflected in the econometric models and expert testimony that lawmakers utilize when considering changes to tax policy.

2. Data sources that measure giving to various causes may not accurately reflect what goes on in the faith-based world. For example, giving to faith-based nonprofits might be categorized as giving to "church" and be presumed to be inwardly focused. This overlooks both how those faith-based nonprofits serve the broader community and how churches themselves typically operate programs that serve non-members. In the same way, a narrow view of religion neglects to take account of how congregations directly serve their neighbors through various programs and also contribute to the flourishing of their communities and welfare of the needy.

3. Some in the secular world have little regard for religion as a positive force and are inclined to want to restrict tax incentives to nonprofits with "worthy" causes, such as those narrowly focused on anti-poverty programs. An important and growing strand of progressive thought seeks to limit tax exemptions and giving incentives to "public serving" charities--excluding from the category religious nonprofits that hire according to religion or that "discriminate" in services (e.g., do not facilitate abortions or recognize same-sex marriage). Other activists have advocated that government, foundations, and corporate donors should require grantees to provide some fixed percentage of their services to various minorities, including sexual minorities, and to manifest certain forms of diversity among their staff and board memberships.

4. In order to protect their religious freedom, faith-based charities and their advocates have to be especially concerned about intrusive government rules, reporting requirements, and investigations that blur the important separation of church and state. For example, policymakers may think they are just trying to obtain all legitimate revenue by restricting a tax exemption to the "worship" activities of a religious organization, but they may, in the process, be defining the other activities of the organization as not religious.

In its work, the coalition draws on the larger principle that citizens are partners with their governments in their responsibility to uphold a just community, and they have vital role to play in shaping that community to conform to the demands of justice.  As a means of exerting the necessary influence to realize these important goals, the "faith in giving" coalition will monitor congressional hearings and legislative developments, meet with members of Congress, facilitate meetings by faith-based organizations with their congressional representatives, work to educate the media, and encourage the organizations to submit comments on tax reform proposals that might affect charitable giving.

- Stanley Carlson-Thies is president and founder of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. He served on the “Reform of the Office” task force of President Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and on the founding staff of President George W. Bush's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.  He also serves as a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

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