This post originally appeared at the Council on Foundations website.

The following was submitted to the editor of the New York Times in response to their publication of the December 6 op-ed How the Government Gives by Professor Ray Madoff. 

Dear Editor:

Professor Madoff (“How the Government Gives,” 12/6) characterizes the charitable deduction as “wasteful.” It may appear this way from the halls of academia. Yet, for people in communities across the country who rely on nonprofit services everyday—the charitable deduction is a lifeline.

Charitable and philanthropic organizations employ millions, provide a wide variety of valuable services that otherwise might not be offered, and contribute to economic growth. Professor Madoff offers the vexing criticism that some nonprofits are more “charitable” than others.

The idea that policymakers might rank organizations’ charitable value raises many complex questions. For example, how would policymakers or tax regulators determine who would deserve the benefit of the deduction or which organizations’ purposes were “charitable.”

While ranking charitable value might have some immediate appeal, we’d strongly warn proponents that details and execution matter.

Our charitable sector thrives because donors get to choose to donate their money to diverse causes. Some choose children’s health. Others choose support for military families. Still others choose community theater groups. Philanthropy should remain an independent investment – free of politics or favoritism.

Madoff also criticizes donor advised funds (DAFs), saying they “don’t do any charitable work themselves.” This view is shortsighted.

DAFs enable donors to make sustained, strategic investments in their communities. They can be started quickly to respond to tragedy, as in the case of a natural disaster or the closing of a large employer within a neighborhood. They also allow donors to build upon their giving year-over-year and direct that giving to causes important to their communities, providing impact not only immediately but over time.

Throughout the recession, most community foundations maintained or increased their grantmaking to meet increased human service needs thanks to donor advised funds. According to Giving USA, community foundations, which often use DAFs as a giving tool, increased their giving by 9.1 percent in 2012. These organizations provide essential services like housing, healthcare, and education in communities nationwide.

Now more than ever, we must encourage – not place harmful restrictions or make arbitrary value judgments– on charitable giving.


Vikki Spruill
President and CEO
Council on Foundations

Vikki Spruill Responds to Ray Madoff Op-Ed