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February 28, 2019

Charitable Giving Rises Despite New Tax Law

But growing at just 1.6%, there are a few possible culprits to take into account.

There’s no doubt about it: Republican tax reform buoyed the economy with across-the-board tax cuts. But there were elements of the law that raised legitimate concerns — most notably its possible effect on charitable giving. Because the standard deduction doubled, itemizing is no longer applicable for millions of tax filers. Theoretically, this increases the likelihood that charitable giving takes a hit. After all, if some donations are contingent on their helping to offset a taxpayer’s tax obligation, what’s to stop him or her from scaling back if charity is no longer personally beneficial?

Last year provided the first clues as to how this effect is or isn’t playing out. According to The Washington Post, “Charitable giving in the United States rose a lackluster 1.6 percent last year, despite a strong economy — a sign that the 2018 tax code overhaul could be hurting donations, according to a new study published Monday. The study by the Fundraising Effectiveness Project also reported a quickening shift away from smaller and middle-class donors in favor of wealthy donors. Money coming from donations under $1,000 fell by more than 4 percent. But gifts from major donors jumped 2.6 percent.”

Of course, the Post was strongly against the tax law from the very beginning, so it’s no surprise that it immediately puts this news in a bad light. But is it accurate? It depends on a few factors.

Essentially, there are two ways to look at this. The “lackluster” rise could be attributable to those who simply were unsure about what their tax obligations would look like given the substantial changes to the tax code. This is especially true for independent contractors. But now that they have a better idea and have ironed out the adjustments, their financial situation is more clear, meaning they know for sure how much they can give to charities. In this sense, any rise at all is a good thing.

On the other hand, the simple truth is that there are some who give to charities or nonprofits only for the tax benefits. Take away the benefits, and suddenly they have no inclination to donate whatsoever. While their willingness to provide in the first place is commendable, their benevolence is paradoxically borne out of a selfish desire.

This last point presents an interesting test case. No-strings-attached giving is a virtue. And most of us probably know people who give generously and yet still take the standard deductions out of necessity when filing a tax return without even thinking twice about it. But others are surely now leery to donate. In which case their priorities need to be reevaluated.

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