Righteous People Performing Righteous Deeds

BERNARD SIEGEL

October 22, 1992|By BERNARD SIEGEL

I have been made aware of and asked to respond to a recent scurrilous attack on The Harry And Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Incorporationed; its founder -- that terrible man who devoted a lifetime of genius and effort to accumulating a vast fortune, which, to the extent of in excess of 99 percent of the total, he placed in a charitable foundation devoted exclusively to helping organizations for the benefit of the poor and disadvantaged; and the foundation's trus- tees, who have the audacity to respect the founder's wishes.

Also included as targets were the Internal Revenue Service, the general public, charitable organizations which have been the recipients of Weinberg Foundation grants and charitable organizations which have not been the recipients of Weinberg Foundation grants. The rationale for inclusion of the latter four categories seems to be their failure to join the author's crusade.

It is only with the direst of misgivings that I accede to the request that I respond, for I fear that by so doing, I accord this blatant attempt to achieve enhanced status and recognition through notoriety a measure of dignity and credence of which it is totally undeserving.

It might be appropriate to point out for those -- count me among you -- who have never heard of the gentleman that Pablo Eisenberg is identified as ''president of the Center for Community Change and co-chair of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.'' I certainly am happy to have that cleared up.

Most, if not all, of Mr. Eisenberg's diatribe is based upon his perception of the ''compact with the American people'' entered into by Mr. Weinberg in exchange for tax benefits. Tax benefits are, of course, creations of Congress and the various state and local legislatures. They exist, as do the taxes they provide partial relief from, only as defined in the various tax laws, legislative committee reports, regulations and other pronouncements promulgated by the Internal Revenue Service and comparable state and local taxing authorities. It might, therefore, be instructive to examine the legislative history and intent of such laws and those who created them.

The progenitor of our current Internal Revenue Code came into being in 1913. Shortly thereafter, at least as early as 1917 and 1918, the United States Congress chose to amend the then-existing law to provide for the granting of tax benefits relating to charitable pursuits.

Faced with the realization that there were myriad humanitarian needs which far exceeded government's ability to respond thereto, the legislators determined that an expanded role for non-governmental charitable organizations, devoted to certain pursuits which were judged to be in the public interest, were the ideal mechanism to effectively deal with such needs.

Tax benefits granted to nurture and aid such organizations basically fall into two broad categories -- those that exempt from tax most types of income earned by those organizations (provided, of course, that they demonstrate to the IRS that they meet certain stringent standards of intent and conduct) and those that encourage increased giving by taxpayers to support the efforts of such organizations by allowing limited deductions of such contributions for purposes of computing taxes.

The size, strength and diversity achieved by those we refer to collectively as ''the non-profit community'' attest to the effectiveness of the incentives offered. Another positive indicator might be the rare unanimity of opinion among successive legislative majorities during the last three-quarters of a century -- majorities controlled by Democrats and those by Republicans, by fiscal conservatives and by liberals, through boom and bust and all points between. None has ever seriously considered negating or substantially changing the basic thrust of those initial legislative efforts.

But what of Mr. Eisenberg's charges?

First, distasteful though it may be, let's deal with his contention that exempt organizations should be required to pass non-discrimination tests of his devising. Does he then advocate revocation of exempt status for Associated Catholic Charities, NAACP and United Jewish Appeal? Obviously they could not meet such standards; neither could any of a plethora of other worthy charities organized and operated by the members of a single religious, ethnic or racial group.

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