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McNellis: Thanks for Giving?

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By John McNellis

Started three years ago, “Giving Tuesday” is becoming to the non-profit world what Black Friday is to retail. Set five days after Thanksgiving—this year December 1st—Giving Tuesday is opening day for the charitable season: The harvest is in, taxes set aside and the Christmas bill has yet to arrive. A perfect time for the compassionate to share.

And they do. Americans are among the most charitable people in the world, donating $358 billion in 2014. Unfortunately, the term deducting may be more accurate than donating because the larger the donation, the less likely it will be to actually hit the street, to aid the retail charities and non-profits on the front-lines in the battles against poverty, disease, ignorance and so on. Instead, mega-dollar contributions—the size that splash across the front page—almost invariably go to charitable purgatory: to family foundations and donor-advised funds (DAFs) where money can languish almost forever.

Thanks to the Federal Tax Code, you can have your charitable cake and, if not eat it too, make sure no one else does. By contributing your money to your own personal foundation or to a donor-advised fund, you get your entire tax deduction on the day you write the check, while, with DAFs at least, never having to donate it to a working charity.

For those who want an immediate tax write-off and the fame of philanthropy—but really hate to part with the dough—family foundations have been the traditional ticket. But, after years of imaginative abuse, their glory days may be in the rearview mirror. In addition to having to distribute a minimum 5 percent a year to real charity, foundations have other drawbacks: You must now comply with a slug of IRS rules that, among other affronts, prevent you from spending all of your contributions on your foundation itself (e.g. by employing half your family tree).

Still, according to the non-profit Foundation Center, foundations—including family, corporate, community and independent—had $798 billion in assets in 2014.

Much simpler than a foundation—and a much better deal for those whose relatives are gainfully employed—is the donor-advised fund. Other than your contribution itself, it costs you nothing. With a couple clicks, you transfer money from, say, your regular Fidelity Investments account to the Fidelity Charitable Trust and you have an immediate tax deduction for the full contribution. While you can never get your money back, you do control when, if and to whom your donation is ultimately granted. This means you can pretend it’s still yours and—à la Uncle Scrooge—watch it pile up year after year. Fidelity doesn’t require that you ever make any distributions; in fact, it merely recommends that you grant at least $50 every four years. $50! A cynic might conclude that Fidelity’s laissez-faire attitude toward the ostensible goal of its charitable trust may have something to do with the fact that the company charges annual fees on the trust’s $20+ billion in assets.

In the same rich vein, the Silicon Valley Community Fund (SVCF), the largest community fund in the country, advertises the sophistication of its investment advisors—that is, the guys who will keep your contribution growing forever—almost as much as it crows about its charitable giving. And, in pitching to potential donors for its DAF, the SVCF touts the fact that it has no minimum distribution requirements.

While still small in relation to total charitable giving, these tax-shelter middlemen—foundations, DAFs and the like—are well on their way to controlling one trillion dollars, and that trillion will only trickle out to working charities when its donors feel like it.

What incentive does either donor or non-profit foundation ever have to part with the money? The donor’s already banked his deduction and moment of glory and he knows that giving away money responsibly is at least as much work as making it in the first place. And the foundation has the same hard-wired imperative that every other American entity has—that is, to grow, grow and then grow some more. Let’s face it: These middlemen will only be hurried along with their grants to charities by government intervention.

A minimum solution would be to require DAFs to at least give away the annual 5 percent that family foundations must. A better approach would be to insist that both donate their funds to working charities within a much shorter time period, say, five years from date of initial contribution.

It’s been said a hundred different ways, but the gist is always the same: Money is a lot like manure; let it pile up and it stinks to high heaven; spread it around and it does some good. A moral philosopher of the first order, the Reverend Billy T. Pastor liked to admonish his flock that generosity precedes gratitude in both the dictionary and life, preaching, “Billy ain’t sayin’ thanks till you start givin’.”

Giving to charitable middlemen ain’t givin’.

John E. McNellis is a Principal at McNellis Partners in Palo Alto, Calif.