Our Taxes Subsidize as Much as 74 Cents of Every Dollar Donated by a Billionaire

We are treated each day to multiple stories about billionaire philanthropy and acts of generosity, often with eye-popping figures. Whether we like the donor’s giving strategy or not, we are encouraged to think of these as private actions and choices of beneficent people. Instead we should be thinking, “these are our tax dollars at work.”

In discussions of billionaire philanthropy, we should not lose sight of two fundamental points:

  1. We as taxpayers subsidize these donations, in the form of lost tax revenue. And the wealthier the donor, the bigger the tax subsidy we provide. For every $1 a billionaire gives to charity, the rest of us chip in as much as 74 cents in lost tax revenue, as we will explain below.
  2. Philanthropy is not a substitute for a fair tax system, where the wealthy pay their fair share to support an adequately funded public sector at the local, state and national level. Charitable dollars don’t built electric grids or water treatment facilities, or provide medical care for the elderly and people with disabilities. Philanthropy does some things well, but it is insufficient in tackling our biggest shared problems.

As a pluralistic society, we benefit from having an innovative and independent third-sector — an alternative to government programs and private corporate power. But too often we think charity is the answer to major social problems when it is, more appropriately, a laboratory or incubator.

The public has a legitimate and appropriate public interest in the seemingly private charity of the wealthy. And as wealth inequality grows and philanthropy becomes more top heavy — with a growing percent of the charitable giving pie coming from the top 10 percent and top 1 percent — we should pay additional attention.

For example, we should be concerned that some private foundations continue to warehouse substantial charitable dollars, even during a pandemic. And we need to fix the design flaw that enables donors to make substantial donations to donor-advise funds (DAFs) with no requirement for payout. In both cases, donors have already banked their tax deductions so there is a public interest that funds move in a timely way to active charities.

When we think of the value of the tax deduction, we most often consider the income tax. If I’m in the top income tax bracket, currently 37 percent, then my charitable donation reduces my income tax by that percent. For every dollar I donate, the taxpayer chips in 37 cents of my gift in lost revenue.

But when the very wealthy give, the donation not only reduces income taxes, but also lowers their capital gains and estate and gift taxes. If I donate $1 billion to my private foundation, I have reduced my taxable estate by $1 billion. If I donate $20 million in appreciated stock to my donor-advised fund, I get a substantial reduction in capital gains taxes.

As professors Roger Colinvaux and Ray D. Madoff write in Tax Notes, “The federal government has long provided generous tax incentives for charitable donations, with current benefits reaching up to 74 percent of the amount of the gift.” They add:

Although a contribution of cash can save the donor as much as 37 cents for each dollar donated, a contribution of appreciated property can save the donor 57 cents for each dollar donated (taking into account both capital gains taxes and income taxes but not potential estate taxes).

In their detailed notations, Colinvaux and Madoff also observe that:

These savings are possible for a gift of appreciated property which the donor has a zero cost basis. The charitable deduction will save the donor 37 percent of the value of the gift; an additional 20 percent of the value of the contributed property if it is subject to capital gains taxes; and, if the donor is subject to estate taxes, another 17 percent (40 percent of the remaining 43 percent) that would otherwise be remaining in the estate if no gift had been made. The tax benefits can be even more if the property is overvalued, a recurring issue for non-publicly traded assets.

In an article in Nonprofit Quarterly, Madoff writes about the tax advantages of donor-advised funds (DAFs), which are favored for donations of complicated appreciated assets. Madoff writes:

Missing from the conversation regarding DAFs is how these donations may impose significantly greater costs — in terms of foregone tax revenue — than the public receives in terms of charitable benefits. This loss of revenue burdens all American taxpayers, who must pick up the slack. The starting point is that donors get significantly more tax benefits by making contributions of appreciated property rather than cash to a charity.

Indeed, my conversations with several tax accountants suggested scenarios where the tax subsidy is even greater than 74 cents on the dollar.

So next time you hear about a billionaire donation to a university or wing of an art museum, take pride. You paid for that too.