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Monday June 24, 2019
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Neel Hajra and Shelley Strickland

Cautious Optimism

Local nonprofit experts say the Republican tax law is no cause for despair

by Dawn Wolfe

From the September, 2018 issue

When the Republican federal tax bill passed late last year, the consensus among nonprofit experts was that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) could have a devastating effect on nonprofit organizations that rely on individual donations to fund their missions. A June paper by the American Enterprise Institute estimated that the new tax regime will decrease charitable giving by four percent, or $17.2 billion a year.

But while the early national take on the new law sounds a lot like Chicken Little, a survey of Washtenaw County nonprofit professionals, from fundraising consultants to people on the ground at area charities, suggests that parts of the sky may be shaky--but it isn't falling.

"Study after study in the philanthropic sector has demonstrated time and time again that tax incentives don't rank anywhere near the top of expressed donor motivation for giving," says consultant Cedric Richner. "Tax incentives are always somewhere in the middle of the bottom tier of reasons why people give philanthropically."

By doubling the standard deduction to $12,000 a year for individuals and $24,000 a year for couples, the TCJA eliminated the benefits of itemizing charitable donations for a large swath of lower- and middle-income donors. But while they may no longer have the satisfaction of knowing that their gift to a charity will cut their tax bill, the bigger standard deduction means that they may still end up paying less in taxes, leaving more money to give--if they believe in the charity's work.

"We've been around for twenty-five years, so we have a donor base that's pretty dedicated," says Marcia Luke-van Dijk, communications and fund development director for Avalon Housing, which works to end homelessness. She says they saw "no impact" on their spring fund drive. "We probably raised slightly more this spring than we did last year," she says.

Monica Brancheau, the managing director of Ele's Place Ann Arbor, which serves grieving children and families, also reports little change in donations so far. A few

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donors paid off multiyear pledges early to take the deductions in 2017, she says, "but otherwise the law doesn't seem to have had any effect."

Shelley Strickland, the vice president for development at the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, adds that the tax law preserved some important donor incentives.

"There was no change to the capital gains tax, which means that gifts of appreciated assets are taxed as they always have been," Strickland says. "This has huge relevance because many people, especially retirees, have a lot of appreciated assets such as stocks that result in great tax savings" if they're donated rather than sold. And "the TCJA did not change the IRA charitable rollover, which allows $100,000 per year of distributions to be directed to charity and not count as income. It's basically an above-the-line deduction that is unchanged and a huge benefit when a retiree doesn't need all of that income."

The tax law could accelerate an already existing trend: particularly since the Great Recession, fewer middle- and lower-income people have been giving, making nonprofits more reliant on a smaller number of richer donors. Traditionally, nonprofit fundraisers have used the "80/20 rule," expecting 80 percent of the funds raised to come from the top 20 percent of their donors. With increasing inequality in income and wealth in the U.S., that's starting to skew closer to 90/10.

"A decade ago, more than 60 percent of American households, regardless of socioeconomic circumstances, supported a nonprofit organization philanthropically," Richner says. "That figure's down to slightly over 50 percent now."

"There's a much longer trend, spanning over a decade, of a shift of itemized giving, coming less from lower-income individuals, and more from higher-income individuals," adds Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation president and CEO Neel Hajra, "and that simply reflects the national trend of more wealth concentrating in the higher-income bracket."

That trend, coupled with the new tax law, could spell at least some trouble for area nonprofits that rely on lower- and middle-income donors for a larger share of their income.

"Nonprofits that work with a lot of individuals who give gifts in that $1,000 to $10,000 range, we've seen credible studies saying those are the nonprofits that should worry," Hajra says, "and there are nonprofits who rely greatly on those kinds of major gifts to their operation."

On the other hand, new forms of giving are emerging, from being able to text a $10 gift to help with a national disaster to the online Giving Tuesday movement after Thanksgiving and giving circles. These may be keeping lower-income people in the donor pool in ways that aren't yet well understood.

"There's actually a lot of hope," says Strickland. "Both for the young generation still wanting to give, maybe in different ways, as well as for the vast amount of wealth that still is in play for philanthropy from an older generation, who will be passing that on to their heirs."

Richner agrees. "Maybe I'm drinking the Kool Aid, but I do think in Ann Arbor, in the greater Washtenaw County area, we have a disproportionately high number of smart, sophisticated people who understand the correlation between having a healthy, vibrant, nonprofit sector that's multifaceted and the overall strength and vitality of our community. It bodes extremely well for the local nonprofit sector."     (end of article)

[Originally published in September, 2018.]


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