Out of America: Noble donors put charities to shame

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The Independent Online
Washington - The item ran on the news wires the other day, about a wealthy Florida couple who killed themselves. Childless and in their late seventies, Richard and Helen Brown had been married for 53 years. Both suffered from debilitating and ulti matelyincurable illnesses.

They decided to take their own lives together in order that their $10m (£6.5m) fortune would go to a church missionary charity to help children, rather than be wasted on health care bills. "This legacy," they said in a farewell letter, "represents the final purpose of our lives."

I mention this small, sad, but oddly uplifting story not because I want to hold forth about the ruinous cost of medical treatment in the United States, or the rights and wrongs of suicide. It was the charity part that caught my eye.

This is the boom season for charities, which reckon to attract half their annual donations in the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. But, for me at least, the Christmas spirit alone cannot wash away the bad taste of charity American-stylein this season of giving, 1994. It has taken the Browns to do that. You may argue the Christian morality of what they did. But beyond doubt they put the business of charity in a nobler perspective.

You only need to live here a few months to realise that charity is an industry, and a huge one. There is no escape. From the beggars in the subway to the big charities and the elaborate "planned giving" schemes dreamt up by their Wall Street advisers, they are after your money. And one way and another, they'll catch up with you.

Last year, Americans gave $102bn - $1,000 for every family in the land - to charities of various kinds. Tax advantages, of course, are one reason for the giving: remember how, back in the Eighties, the then Arkansas governor Bill Clinton claimed $2 off taxable income for each item of old underwear he gave to the Salvation Army.

I have not started disposing of my underwear yet. But every now and then someone persuades me to part with $100 here, $150 there, for causes as disparate as a public television special on the music of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, to a children's party

sponsored by the DC police. In the latter case, incidentally, never again: after that one donation the police pestered me so relentlessly that the last time an officer asked for money I screamed in fury down the phone. So far, no reprisals.

And public television is not much better. Week in, week out, the PBS stations have the best programmes. But that does not excuse the fund-raising exercises, when for days on end all yields to an announcer begging for your money. Whatever the charity, thepattern never varies. Your generosity is rewarded by a certificate declaring you a ``friend'', "special friend" or "patron", depending on how much you give - and by the little chit to keep for the IRS.

This year, however, a whiff of genuine crisis is in the air. Americans, normally tireless givers, are developing "donor fatigue". At first glance this seems odd: after all, the economy is booming and people are less worried about their own financial security. But over the past four years charitable donations have dropped by 25 per cent, and things are likely to get worse.

One reason, I am sure, has been conservative talk radio, and its message to listeners that charity, to paraphrase Senator Jesse Helms's gracious words on foreign aid, is money "thrown down a rathole". The conservatives have taken over Congress, while Re p ublicans and now-President Bill Clinton engage in a bidding war over welfare cuts, and Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich sees orphanages as the answer. In other words, the politicians are passing the buck to the charities, just when these latter are finding mo ney harder to come by than ever.

So I brace myself for onslaught by charity. In their zeal to prune government spending, the Republicans make it no secret that they want to reduce, and perhaps eliminate funding for the PBS television network and its radio equivalent NPR, long held to benests of liberals. Countless other cuts are proposed, all born of a faith that the private sector is better than government at meeting the needs of citizens.

Big charities are now offering schemes to take over your assets and the attendant tax liabilities, and pay income on them, in return for keeping the assets when you die. Such are the very worldly considerations of charity at Christmas 1994. Thankfully, they did not cross the minds of Richard and Helen Brown.