Getting beyond the “charity versus government” paradigm

charity versus governmentCharity is a wonderful gift. It fuels the soul of the giver while helping or even saving the life of another person. When we give to charity, we often receive much more in return.

Paying taxes, on the other hand, rarely leaves you with the warm fuzzies. But our tax dollars do tremendous good in our communities and around the world. Charities simply cannot meet the needs and build the common good the way government can. The NY Times examined the issue a few years ago after Hurricane Sandy and offered this comparison:

Whatever its merits, charity is small relative to the potential need. Total charitable contributions in the United States were under $300 billion last year — less than 2 percent of the nation’s economic output. Doubling that amount wouldn’t fill the hole left by deficit reduction — which experts estimate at about $500 billion a year in the long term.

For all the trust we put in big philanthropists like Bill Gates and Eli Broad deploying vast resources for the public good, private charitable contributions have been stuck around 2 percent of personal income for years, according to the Center on Philanthropy. Corporate donations have never increased much above 1 percent of pretax profits.

Indeed, the vast growth of the nonprofit sector since the 1980s has been fueled not by donations but by fees and payments from the government. In 2008, philanthropic contributions provided only 12 percent of nonprofits’ revenue. Fees and grants from government accounted for about a third.

During the trainings we provide, our partners sometimes ask, how should they respond when someone argues that meeting a certain need is charity’s role, not the government’s. Here are some suggestions for how to help that person recognize the importance of government in meeting the needs of its citizens—and how that ties into the government’s role of building the common good.

  • The interests and passions of charitable givers don’t always align with larger public goals. Funding or running an afterschool arts program can be a joy-filled experience with the potential to change how children see the world. Those with a passion for such endeavors shouldn’t be told that their goals aren’t worthy because poverty or hunger or homelessness must come first. And yet, those issues must be addressed with long-term and well-funded programs and strategies. As Bill Moyers said in 2011, “Everyone should be charitable. But justice aims to create a social order in which, if individuals choose not to be charitable, people still don’t go hungry, unschooled, or sick without care.”
  • Communities with the greatest needs have the least capacity for charitable giving. As a share of their collective resources, these communities may in fact be more charitable than wealthier folks, but that doesn’t change the fact that they simply may not have the available resources to ensure that everyone in the community has their basic needs met.
  • When resources are most needed, charities are the most strapped. It is often the case that, during economic downturns, needs grow and donations to charities decline or at least fail to keep up. Public funding, particularly at the federal level, usually increases during economic downturns, stabilizing the economy and responding to increased demands.
  • Leaders of charities themselves often speak of the need for greater public involvement and resources. Leaders of charities can be great spokespeople for great investments in government programs because they see the difference those programs make. You may want to ask them to help you make the case—like asking a food bank representative to speak out about the need for SNAP funding or for the Earned Income Tax Credit.
  • If everyone benefits then everyone should be involved. In our efforts to shine a light on the direct impacts of public programs we often focus too much on the immediate beneficiaries and not enough on how these programs support the common good. We all benefit from living in communities in which families have basic needs met, from housing to child care to health care. Reminding people of this fact and explaining how it works is an effective way to get back to the importance of public-sector responses.
  • When in doubt, pivot and reframe. Have you developed a set of pivot phrases that you’re comfortable with and that you can use to quickly get back to your talking points? If not, you should. Phrases like “what matters most in this situation is…” or “the heart of the matter is…” can get you back to your high ground quickly.

What’s missing from this list? What arguments have you used that were effective, or maybe you have examples of ones that bombed? Let us know so that we can include them in our recommendations on this topic. For now, it’s safe to say that no charity-funded snow plows are coming to clear the streets near my home in North Carolina this week. I’ll have to rely on the state Department of Transportation for that.


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