Foundations Waiting For Care Package

October 21, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Although donor gifts to community foundations across the country rose by 9 percent in 2004, showing that citizens have increased their interest in the work these nonprofits have done, the same philanthropic organizations are still waiting for Congress to pass a piece of legislation that is vital to the work they do.

Some have been waiting 15 years for the U.S. Senate and House to pass a National Care Act that would make it easier for citizens to give to community foundations. In past years, each chamber has approved its version of such a bill and then both failed to agree on a final version that would have gone to the White House for signing.

Well, Congress has gone to the well once again — this time on a bipartisan basis — and has raised the hopes of community foundation directors everywhere for the umpteenth time.

Senators Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Representatives Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Harold Ford, Jr., D-Tenn., introduced separate charitable-giving legislation in their respective chambers this year. Of all the things the bills would accomplish, at least two are very important to foundation directors.

One would allow investors to make tax-free donations to charities from their Individual Retirement Accounts. The other would let taxpayers who don't itemize on Form 1040 take deductions for charitable contributions. Both would likely increase gifts to foundations.

"The bills haven't been considered formally anywhere. Both were just introduced at the end of September," said Diane Canova, vice president of government relations for the Council On Foundations, from her office in the nation's capital.

Canova told the Business Journal that similar versions of both bills have been presented in Congress a number of times before.

"Some versions of it have been around, I guess, for almost 15 years. Past Congresses have passed Care Acts but they were not able to come together to agree on a compromise before the last session of Congress," she said.

Those bills included measures other than charitable giving — and those measures, such as letting faith-based organizations receive federal grants, have essentially derailed agreement between the chambers on previous bills.

"It was broader social policy issues than the issues that the Council and others had focused most of their attention on, and that was favorable IRA rollover language," said Canova. "I think with regard to that there were some differences about the age at which people could begin sending their IRA funds to charity. But I don't think that was a major stumbling block. I think if they had the time to compromise, they would have been able to work that out."

But Canova felt the current sponsors were committed strongly enough to their legislation that they would move both bills forward this session. Their dedication, however, doesn't guarantee that either bill will get a vote in its respective chamber before the year ends.

"It's hard to say because Congress is certainly focused on the need to support charitable organizations due to all the efforts that are needed for the hurricane-rebuilding effort. But they have a number of other issues on their plate, as well, so it's not clear whether these bills will be able to get the full Congressional attention," she said of a floor vote for either.

"But in talking with them on the 'hill' it certainly seems that there is strong interest in considering the legislation."

The 9 percent increase in donations to community foundations last year meant total gifts reached $4.2 billion, according to a survey of 636 community foundations done by The Columbus Foundation. That figure was up by $400 million from the $3.8 billion given in 2003.

"Behind these numbers are the human stories of donors who are moved to share their generosity with others," said Douglas Kridler, president and CEO of The Columbus Foundation, which has conducted the annual survey since 1988.

The Tulsa Community Foundation reported $272 million in gifts last year, tops among the surveyed foundations. Coming in second was The Peninsula Community Foundation with donations of $156.2 million, while the Community Foundation of Silicon Valley finished third nationwide with $137.1 million in gifts.    

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