Why a Policy Discussion is Important

I am a co-conspirator with Lucy on the Philanthropy Policy Project, and I’m excited to be a part of this.  I am very hopeful that this conversation will lead to something, for I’m convinced that policy questions are of the utmost importance.

Why?  To start with the obvious: I am a political theorist by training and therefore my interest as a scholar is on the political institutions in which philanthropy takes place rather than on the actions and motives of individual philanthropists.  I am inclined to think that the actions and motives of individuals cannot be properly understood or evaluated outside the political institutions that currently structure philanthropy.  (Can the motive of the philanthropist be understood apart from the tax incentives that reward philanthropic behavior?)  But such a claim is not strictly necessary.  I want simply to recognize that, though philanthropy may be as old as humanity itself, its setting in modern society embeds it firmly with the political institutions of the state.  Laws govern the creation of foundations and nonprofit organizations, and they spell out the rules under which these organizations may operate.  Laws set up special tax treatment for philanthropic and nonprofit organizations, and they permit tax concessions for individual and corporate donations to qualifying nonprofits.  In this sense, philanthropy is not exactly an invention of the state but can be viewed as an artifact of the state; we can be certain that philanthropy would not have the form it currently does in the absence of the various laws that structure it and tax incentives that encourage it. The goods and harms of philanthropy can be products of, or at least can be promoted or diminished by, the policies of the state that are designed to encourage or reward philanthropic behavior.

That’s my brief for why the philanthropy policy project is important.  Your thoughts?


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