Charities a crucial complement

An opinion on the question “Are charities more effective than Government?”, by Leslie Lenkowsky, professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University:

The idea that charity can take the place of government spending is absurd on its face. The U.S. federal government alone spends far more than the $300 billion Americans donated to nonprofit groups last year. Moreover, much of that giving goes for purposes that would be low on any government’s priority list.

But that is exactly why philanthropy is valuable and deserves encouragement through tax and other public policies.

The basic debates in any type of government are always over what is in the public’s interest. But another way is by allowing each of us to give money or time – often collaborating with others — to try out what we think will address particular aspects of the public interest. That is the domain of philanthropy. It is especially important for people with ideas that may be unpopular, innovative, or directed at a minority of the population.

Those with more money and time can, of course, have more influence in philanthropy. But they can have more influence in politics as well. And in philanthropy, because its focus is on the particular, not the general, a little giving can go a long way. You don’t have to be rich to be a successful donor.

Philanthropy, in short, is an expression of pluralism. Its goals differ from those of politics and the standards applicable to government actions, such as fairness, do not fit what it does.

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