Foundations Enjoined to Be More Charitable ; Mounting Criticism of Charitable Givers Says They're Being Too Stingy. the Issue Will Be Addressed at a Key Meeting Next Week

Article excerpt

Propelled by America's economic expansion and fattened by an unprecedented transfer of wealth into their hands, the nation's charitable foundations are giving more than ever before.

Schools, symphonies, and soup kitchens are all benefiting from the open wallets of individuals like Bill Gates and institutions like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.

Yet America's philanthropic institutions are, on the whole, unjustifiably stingy, according to an increasingly vocal set of critics, who are waging an aggressive campaign to shame givers into doing more.

On the surface, the argument is about whether private foundations should give more than the minimum - law requires them to give at least 5 percent of their asset base annually.

But the issue cuts more deeply, touching on what obligation the wealthy, and often clubby world of private foundations, have to society as a whole, given their privileged tax status.

"The debate comes down to what's right, and the question of whose money is this anyway," says Mark Dowie, who is writing a book about American philanthropy and social responsibility.

Mr. Dowie and others say the tax breaks that private foundations enjoy justify greater accountability for how much money they plow back into society.

Pushing for 6 percent

The National Network of Grantmakers and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy are launching a campaign next week to push foundations to give at least 6 percent of their assets yearly.

Such a change may seem small. But given the total size of the nation's foundations, that slight bump in giving would send an additional $4 billion flowing into nonprofits.

The issue will be debated next week at the annual meeting in Los Angeles of the Council on Foundations, the largest regular gathering of the philanthropic world.

The gathering comes at a time of unprecedented prosperity for the nation's foundations. According to the New York-based Foundation Center, large-foundation giving jumped 22 percent in 1998, the latest full year of data.

Yet as the stock market pumps up foundations' assets, and gifts to new and existing endowments increase, that giving looks puny to some observers.

All the more so, say critics, when contrasted to the need.

Citing the growing gap between rich and poor in the US, the rising number of homeless, and the high rate of child poverty, Rob McKay of the McKay Foundation says foundations "are not exactly stepping up to the plate." The McKay Foundation gave out about 20 percent of its assets last year. …

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