Thursday, December 08, 2005

What is charity/"caritas"/love?

The discussion begun by "What is charity?"(November 21) has generated some comments and questions - including the questions of what is included in "charitable organizations" and why do they have tax exempt status in the first place?

The privilege of nonprofit organizations to avoid paying taxes may increasingly be questioned. (Ironically, some of those who challenge this right of nonprofit organizations use tax shelters and other means to avoid taxes on their own wealth - perhaps not paying their fair share of taxes; but that's another issue.) Very legitimate questions should be raised. If some nonprofits sell goods and services and behave just like businesses, why not pay taxes to support the government services necessary to enable those organizations to survive? If a nonprofit can afford to pay its executives salaries that put them into the top 5% of all wage earners in the country, why can't it pay some share of taxes?

Some nonprofit organizations would prefer to avoid these questions. I think the opposite. Those of us who participate in nonprofit organizations, as staff or volunteers, need to address these questions and develop a well-reasoned rationale for the ability of our organizations to be partly or completely exempt from taxation.

Part of the rationale surely does derive from the principles of the commenter who wrote "the rationale behind tax-free status is to not tax groups that are not part of the government, but are performing services for society that government would otherwise need to perform (like health care, education, immigrant assistance) or that are seen as a worthwhile good for society (like the arts and, I believe, religious worship and congregational care & outreach)".

However, we need to think more about this. I'll do so, and I hope you do too.

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