On March 11, Prof Linda Sugin of Fordham University wrote a provocative op-ed in The New York Times, "Your Name on a Building and a Tax Break Too, Re--thinking Taxes and David Geffen's Gift for Avery Fisher Hall." The thrust of her piece is that a donor’s name on a building should be treated as a major return benefit to that donor and therefore the gift's deductibility should be reduced by the "value" conferred, in this instance $15 million, the amount the Philharmonic paid the Fisher family to surrender the name.
As a career nonprofit fundraiser, I salute Professor Sugin's attempt to encourage even more philanthropy and tax justice, and I reject her well-intended proposal to do that through changes to the charitable tax code. She theorizes that future philanthropists would give more if current ones were incentivized to forego or foreshorten a naming opportunity in appreciation for their gift - or in exchange for it, as Sugin has it.
For most nonprofits, creative presentation of untaxed "intangible" benefits for bigger gifts--with recognition being the most powerful--represent success or failure. In practice, many institutions are already encouraging short-term naming opportunities, for just the reasons Sugin gives. Would they be helped with new laws? Be careful what you wish for. First, limits on naming terms won't work with some (desperately needed) prospects, and second, why stop there? Once the IRS is allowed to start valuing intangibles, look out. That is my main point. Clear and just as it may seem, there is no little fix and it won't stay put. As federal codes and then each state attempt to place a taxable value on a wide range of ever-creative intangible recognition benefits, all representing different circumstances, the process risks introducing serious confusions and complexities, and, I'd predict, vigorously renewed attempts to eliminate the charitable deduction altogether. Confusion and complexity depress giving in a charitable heartbeat.
-- Marilyn Bancel