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Opinion

Foundation For The Carolinas chief defends donor rights and causes
Response to Benjamin Chavis column
 
Published Wednesday, April 12, 2017 4:07 pm
by Michael Marsicano

I would have been honored to discuss Foundation For The Carolinas with civil rights icon Dr. Benjamin Chavis. Since I was not afforded the opportunity, I would like to respond to his column, reprinted in The Charlotte Post on April 9, 2017.

FFTC distributes thousands of grant awards to nonprofits each year, including more than 17,000 in 2016. Singling out grants to a few select institutions overlooks the diversity of thought, intent, background and economic status of the collective fundholders who make grants through the Foundation. Our 2,500 family, nonprofit and corporate fundholders reflect a wide variety of values and perspectives. They make grants to 501(c)3 nonprofits of all shapes, sizes and purposes. As one would expect, a community foundation reflects ALL viewpoints in our community. This is the big tent of community foundations.

Grant-making activities at Foundation For The Carolinas fall into two primary categories. The vast majority of grants are donor initiated, meaning grants are distributed from funds created by donors who have placed charitable dollars into their funds to support the causes they care about. A much smaller portion of our grant awards are discretionary, meaning FFTC proactively chooses to fund programs supporting areas of community need. We are spearheading important initiatives, such as the recent Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, Read Charlotte, Project L.I.F.T. and A Way Home Housing Endowment – all designed to improve and strengthen our community for all residents.

We do not make grants in our name or in the name of our fundholders to any organization that has not been granted 501(c)3 status by the IRS. In other words, donors may ONLY support charities awarded that designation by the federal government. The non-profit groups cited in the opinion column by Dr. Chavis hold this designation.

While community foundations are indeed chartered with “variance power” to modify any restriction or condition on the distribution of funds, we do not evoke this authority unless a nonprofit is in poor standing with the IRS or the donor’s original intent cannot be fulfilled. We have two reasons for this practice; one is related to legal precedent and the other is freedom of speech in philanthropy.

On the legal precedent front, courts have previously ruled against community foundations, finding that donor intent overrides variance power, with a case in San Francisco being the most notable example. The San Francisco community foundation’s board tried to redirect charitable dollars away from the causes articulated by the creator of the fund. The judge ruled against it, taking hundreds of millions of dollars away from San Francisco’s foundation. The court set up a brand new community foundation in another county that would fulfill the donor’s original wishes.

What of freedom of speech in philanthropy? From animal rights, to the environment, to social activism, to religion, to immigration – pick any cause and any charity – there are supporters and detractors. Imagine if every grant from every fund to every nonprofit organization was based on an arbitrary decision-making process by the community foundation?

In his column, Dr. Chavis mentioned the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that has taken positions against certain non-profit organizations receiving grants from our fundholders. But he did not include that in 2016, FFTC distributed nine grants from our fundholders supporting the same Southern Poverty Law Center. Our clients reflect all viewpoints in this community. And they use their donor-advised funds to support the causes that align with their views.

FFTC supports our fundholders’ right to donate to organizations recognized and sanctioned by the IRS. We also support the right of columnists such as Dr. Benjamin Chavis to fight for their beliefs. However, we must ensure that the facts on both sides are fairly represented, which is why we appreciate the opportunity to discuss the work we do in our community.

Michael Marsicano is president and CEO at Foundation For The Carolinas.

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