Moral Court for Charity

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In June of 2004, the Senate Finance Committee prepared a table for a long panel of witnesses to testify on charitable accountability, a diverse group including national trade associations, national nonprofit ratings entities, and specific issue and interest representatives of the nonprofit sector. At the end of the table sat Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, though participating on the panel to speak about the problems of The Nature Conservancy and the solutions he and his colleagues on the TNC board had wrought. A young committee staffer placed a chair next to Bok as my seat at the table. Bok glowered at me as an imposter, probably a superannuated committee usher usurping a seat where I didn’t belong. I explained that I was scheduled to testify as well, and I actually suspect that he viewed me as the nonprofit equivalent of literary writer George Plimpton trying his hand at quarterbacking the Detroit Lions or goaltending for the Boston Bruins.

I doubt I accomplished much through my rapid testimony next to Bok, and the legislation certainly didn’t measure up to some of the tough problems, particularly on philanthropy (like payout, trustee fees, corporate foundation disclosure, donor-advised fund disclosure, etc.). In the wake of the 2006 elections, some observers thought that Congressional attention to nonprofit accountability would wane. But that’s not the case.

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the House Ways and Means Committee under New York City Congressman Charles Rangel’s leadership is planning hearings this very month. As of this instant, there is nothing specific listed on the Ways and Means website, but that doesn’t mean the hearings won’t happen sooner or later. When they do, one can expect the kind of turnout that greeted Senator Grassley’s hearings in 2004, drawing a crowd of onlookers filling an auditorium hall and spilling over to another room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building plus a bevy of K Street lobbyists.

What might the Congressman who has represented New York City’s Harlem neighborhood for three decades ask of the foundations that will dutifully show up to testify? We offer our thoughts on what might be going through Rangel’s mind, especially in light of the responsiveness of foundations to Max Baucus’s expression of concern about rural philanthropy at last May’s Council on Foundations meeting. Good luck to Congressman Rangel and the Ways and Means Committee for their efforts to raise important issues about who benefits from charity and philanthropy. Despite hearings, there are other issues of philanthropy such as these three items on corporate philanthropy — grantmaking shenanigans, Fannie Mae, and Sallie Mae that merit the attention of regulators and all of us to monitor.