The case for philanthropic freedom

Joanne Florino

‘In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact.’ Alexis de Tocqueville’s phrase extolling the virtues of civil society in the US is often cited. Generally ignored, though, are his warnings that, without safeguards, the tyranny of the majority and the inevitable overreach of government would combine to produce a power that is munificent yet absolute, professing a singular definition of ‘the public good’ which would dismiss – and ultimately destroy – all competitors.

In the matter of private giving, the American experiment has proved more resilient than our French visitor predicted. Both custom and law provide a high level of philanthropic freedom, beginning with the relative ease with which civil society organizations can form as tax-exempt organizations, and ending with a tax code and regulatory policies that provide significant incentives for charitable donations and give donors wide discretion in when, where and how they distribute their gifts. The ability of donors to identify needs at a local or national level, and then create and sustain organizations to address those needs, is at the core of a dynamic, responsive civil society.

'Philanthropic freedom is not guaranteed, and in the US direct and indirect attacks on this hallmark of civil society frequently come from critics within the charitable community. Among the most serious are suggestions that current laws governing non-profits are flawed and those responsible for regulating charities are not doing their jobs, so a new policing agency for charity should be established.'

The threat posed by an ‘independent’ regulator

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