501(c)4s: Serving a valuable public purpose

I have to get back to the hard work of coming up with my own content next week (!), but here’s one more borrowing from a really fascinating conversation on the New York Times opinion page, about whether the controversy over the IRS’ additional scrutiny for Tea Party and other conservative groups suggests that 501(c)4 organizations do not actually serve a legitimate public good and, therefore, do not deserve tax-exempt status.

You can read the debate for yourself, but I certainly agree with the commentator who argues for preserving the tax status of 501(c)4s, stating noting that, while organizations like The Sierra Club and AARP “are too politically engaged to be charities, yet they work toward what each believes will be a better world.”

But I think the larger question is this:

Why are organizations like AARP too politically engaged to be charities?

Why do we have such strict limits on nonprofit political engagement that we are so quick to rule that an organization that undeniably serves a public purpose–even if I do not happen to completely agree with that vision–are not ‘charities’?

In debating whether organizations should be allowed to organize themselves as 501(c)4s, and whether that is a valid and valuable designation in our tax system, are we really asking the wrong question? Should we really be considering whether we unduly muzzle our 501(c)3 organizations, pushing, then, organizations clearly operating in the public good into the (c)4 realm, distorting that category and, maybe, making it more vulnerable to distortion, then?

I absolutely believe that public interest lobbying and political engagement are not only legitimate activities but, indeed, completely essential to the functioning of our democratic system, at least as currently structured. I believe that organizations should receive some harbor within the tax code for taking on that valuable work.

But I also think that fighting to end hunger is just as noble as handing out food, that working for better health care laws is just as important as taking care of those who are sick, and that speaking out about gender inequality is just as needed as sheltering those fleeing domestic violence.

If we agree, then maybe we need new provisions in the tax code to allow individuals who financially support that important work to receive the same tax advantages of those whose dollars fund more immediate relief.

Valuable public purposes all
, no?

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