August 29, 2014

Push the Senate to Pass the America Gives More Act

Photo by Jen Gallardo via Flickr

Fifteen days. That’s about how much time is left on the legislative calendar before Congress adjourns this year. That’s not much, and it could be all the time nonprofit advocates have left to make sure that an important tax bill designed to encourage charitable giving becomes law.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the measure, the America Gives More Act, for the country’s charities and foundations. The bill includes vital provisions that help nonprofits and communities, but it also comes as part of a larger conversation about the role of philanthropy in America.

Over the past handful of years, the charitable deduction has been under attack—both from people who think it serves just the elite or wastes scarce government resources and from those who want to see many tax breaks of all kinds wiped out to make the tax code simpler. So far, nonprofits have managed to protect giving incentives from any detrimental changes, but the debate is far from over as Congress is poised to consider an overhaul to the tax law.

That’s why we must maintain momentum by rallying to persuade lawmakers to pass the America Gives More Act. The bill would eliminate a perennial source of uncertainty and frustration for donors by making permanent deductions for IRA charitable rollovers, contributions of conservation easements, and donations of food inventory. Despite the fact that these policies are proven to spur charitable contributions and have broad bipartisan support, Congress routinely lets them lapse, only to be reinstated months later.

The bill also simplifies the private-foundation excise tax. The current two-tier structure of the tax is an administrative headache that discourages unplanned giving during exceptional circumstances. The common-sense decision to create a single flat rate was included in past proposals yet has still not been adopted into law.

What’s more, a provision to extend the deadline through April 15 (from December 31) for people who want to donate and write off charitable gifts as they are doing their taxes for the previous year could be the nudge needed for millions of people to make that extra contribution.

Few nonprofits have any reason not to support these ideas, nor does Congress. That was clear in July when the House voted 277 to 130 to pass the legislation in a rare moment of bipartisan consensus during an otherwise polarized time.

Yet nothing is as simple as it seems in Washington, and the Senate could still dither away this opportunity—unless we make our voices heard.

This Congress has just a few weeks of debate and voting left, but many senators will be spending lots of days at home as they or their colleagues are campaigning for re-election. As they seek votes, many will visit local food banks, volunteer for school cleanups, watch plays at the community theaters, and see all the kinds of good works being done with charitable dollars.

As they visit key organizations in their communities, it is important for nonprofit and foundation leaders to remind them what they can accomplish by passing the America Gives More Act when they get back to Washington. It’s vital that nonprofits try to speak with each and every senator to explain that passing the legislation should be a top priority.

Place calls. Schedule meetings. Write op-eds. Make noise, and urge your senators to listen. The Senate has the opportunity to help get millions of dollars to communities in need, but only if it acts swiftly. That means nonprofits can’t hesitate—and need to jump in to advocate for legislation that can make a difference.

Vikki Spruill is chief executive of the Council on Foundations.