Which is the better way for Americans to help their fellow citizens in need this holiday season: effecting systemic political change or making direct donations to charity?
In a recent exchange on Twitter, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban admonished followers that the former wasn’t good enough:
For those considering donating to Reps or Dems in the Georgia Senate run-offs, can you please re-consider and donate that money to your local foodbank
and organizations that can help those without food or shelter? Lets put Americans in need above Politics
— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) November 12, 2020
Singer John Legend then chimed in to push back on Cuban’s argument:
I get that politics is annoying and contentious, but the bottom line is that the Senate flipping would be far more impactful than a food bank donation. We need massive stimulus and aid to individuals and small businesses. Government needs to do this. Charity isn’t sufficient
— John Legend (@johnlegend) November 12, 2020
It is hardly a surprise to find that liberals prefer direct political engagement to private charitable giving as a means of addressing social problems. Yet amid a deadly pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and upended the American economy, the government doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of helping those affected. It is not for lack of spending. Trillions of dollars have been sent from Washington, but in such a haphazard way that many families still worry about where their next meal will come from. Mr. Cuban has a point: It is better to help the needy directly by giving to a food bank than indirectly by electing senators who will eventually vote for government aid.
Still, what most observers probably don’t realize is that this debate is in some sense moot: Government is simply funneling its largesse toward private charities anyway, and politicizing the nonprofit world to an unprecedented degree in the process.
Giving USA, an annual report produced by the Giving Institute that tracks charitable spending, found that one-third of the $2 trillion in revenues reported by nonprofits in 2016 came from government grants and contracts, while another 49 percent came via fees and services. That means that less than 20 percent of all funds raised by non-profits came via private donations from individuals, foundations, corporations, and bequests.
The largest nonprofit recipients of government largesse tend to be hospitals and universities. In 2019, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute received almost $10 million in federal money and National Jewish Health received $13 million; in 2017, Harvard received over $573 million in research-and-development funds and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor received over $829 million, according to the National Science Foundation. Beyond the health-care and higher-education sectors, even some religious nonprofits have raked in government funding. World Vision, an evangelical humanitarian organization, received federal revenues of $320 million in 2018. In 2014, 63 percent of Catholic Charities’ $4.5 billion in income came from government sources.
It’s hard to remain sympathetic while arguing against the dedication of public money to education, medical research, and humanitarian aid. But the outsize role that government has come to play in funding America’s nonprofits has in many cases changed the way that they operate. With colleges, of course, we know that government-funded financial aid has resulted in increased tuition costs and greater indebtedness for students and their families. There is no doubt that hospitals and research institutions need more money to study and treat serious illnesses. But administrators who run these institutions are also sensitive to the wishes, and sometimes to the whims, of federal officials. Perhaps this will mean they are more likely to study cures for deadly viruses and cancers; but it could also mean that they are disinclined to research the long-term effects of currently popular diagnoses such as gender dysphoria. Religious groups that provide humanitarian relief may decide to pursue certain strategies over others — perhaps by prioritizing soup kitchens over work programs — in order to satisfy their government benefactors. Money that comes with strings attached inevitably threatens the independence of those receiving it.
Meanwhile, organizations with explicitly political missions also receive large sums: The National Urban League and Planned Parenthood received more than $13 million and $616 million respectively in 2019. These political groups often lobby for greater government spending and then magically find themselves the recipients of it. Without having to answer much to private donors, they can simply pursue a single-minded strategy in line with whatever Washington wants.
Most nonprofit organizations are of course well-meaning and do good work, but this doesn’t diminish the problems posed by their ever-growing entanglement with the government. If we wish to send more resources to people in immediate need of them, then we should follow Mark Cuban’s advice. Giving directly to charity is a quicker, easier, and more effective way doing good than giving to a Senate candidate in Georgia — and it has the added advantage of helping America’s nonprofits maintain their independence from the long arm of government.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. James Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.