Acton Commentary

Tax Credits and the Virtue of Volunteerism


President Bush said he wants to "level the playing field" so that effective faith-based organizations (FBOs) would not be prevented from receiving public funding when these allocations are made. But this measure could be rendered moot if more private-sector actors come together in the name of charity, as some have already done in Minneapolis.

A recent issue of Christianity Today details how General Mills, which is headquartered in the Twin Cities, not only offered funding but also allowed 100 employees time off to help an FBO known as the Stairstep Initiative to get started in an underprivileged section of the city. Other businesses soon followed suit, donating their various professional services in addition to money.

This example of private individuals and business leaders coming together to support a charity in which they believe offers a stark contrast to the rather impersonal method of governmental grants. The reason behind the difference, as stated by Stairstep director Alfred Babington-Johnson, is this: "God does not just say he loves us; He shows it, and so must we."

One way to encourage more people to show their love for each other is by instituting a charitable tax-credit regime. While the president’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives continues to garner debate from both ends of the political spectrum for its embrace of grants, a movement advocating the use of tax credits to empower charities has begun to gain momentum. Already several congressional bills are proposing the issuance of a tax credit in exchange for charitable donations.

Such legislative action is encouraging. A charitable tax credit circumvents the "separation of church and state" issues that would likely accompany any direct grants to FBOs by the government. A credit would also protect the autonomy of FBOs and capacitate individuals to discern which charities are most effective as well as which are most in accordance with their beliefs.

These proposals, however, have thus far neglected what could be a major impetus in the next phase of the war on poverty: tax credits for the volunteering of professional services.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico , president of the Acton Institute, has led the way in calling for the inclusion of a tax credit for volunteer professional services in such proposals. Fr. Sirico aptly points out that, while donations are vital to an organization’s mission, compassion means more than just giving money. He commends professionals who contribute their talents to assist organizations of their choice. Floyd Beecham, a pastor and president of Urban Hope Ministries in Minneapolis, concurs that the most sought-after commodities for his organization are volunteers’ time and talent: "We need lawyers, bankers, financial planners, and people with professional expertise" (CT, 59).

A volunteer credit could lead more firms and private professionals to offer their needed expertise to a variety of charitable organizations. As the example in Minneapolis shows, such activities are already occurring; it is likely they would be boosted nationwide with the passage of a volunteer credit.

God commands us to love our neighbors and care for the less fortunate among us. When professionals volunteer their time and services to charity, they are also putting to good use their God-given talents. Using one’s expertise to help those in need is a proper expression of God’s blessings. Whether that assistance comes in the form of business training, legal advice, or facility repair work, it is provided in the name of compassion.

Compassionate conservatism architect Marvin Olasky reminds us that the word compassion literally means "to suffer with," implying that spending time with those in need is essential for affirming their dignity and value. A volunteer credit regime would employ this definition better than the current system does. For example, the credit could present a doctor with the incentive to volunteer his/her lifesaving practices at a rehabilitation center. In the process, the doctor could come to know and perhaps counsel someone in need—spiritually as well as physically. This notion was touched upon by the noted Calvinist theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper, who wrote, "You, too, must suffer with your suffering brothers. Then, driven by this sympathy of compassion, you will naturally conform your action to your speech. For deeds of love are indispensable."

Some might ask, however, whether it is right to "incentivize" such deeds of love through financial reimbursement in the form of tax credits. Would a tax incentive cheapen the spirit of volunteering?

Not necessarily. A volunteer credit would merely make it easier for people to freely donate their time and expertise; it would not be the reason they do so. The professionals in Minneapolis did not donate their services for a tax credit; they worked to alleviate poverty for the betterment of their community. The issuance of a volunteer credit might encourage more businesses to allow individual employees time off for volunteering, as General Mills did. People also might be more inclined to volunteer their time if they know that their hard-earned tax dollars would be supporting charities of their choice (if only indirectly through a volunteer credit).

In addition, any incentive offered by the credit could still lead people to volunteer their services and thus experience the "suffering with" aspect of compassion, enriching the lives of both the contributors and those in need.

Ultimately, the volunteer credit fosters the ideal of freedom, a key aspect of effective compassion (refer to Dr. Olasky’s book The Tragedy of American Compassion . Charity is a virtue that must be exercised freely. The welfare state method of "tax and spend" social services violates the individual’s freedom of giving and therefore removes charity from the equation. By encouraging individuals to invest their time and energy into the lives of people—arguably, the most productive charitable activity—a tax credit would begin to shift social service responsibilities to local communities and away from federal regulators. A strengthened civil society would be the result of a renewed volunteerism spurred on by a tax credit.

We must remember that giving money to worthy causes is but one of many ways to exercise good stewardship of our resources. Kuyper said, "A charity which knows only how to give money, is not yet Christian love. You will be free only when you also give your time, your energy, and your resourcefulness…." A volunteer tax credit would successfully augment a charitable giving credit so that professional as well as financial resources could be effectively channeled in the war on poverty. Such a proposal would more adequately fulfill the vision of civil society and the tremendous task of caring for the poor, needy, and marginalized, as mandated by God.