Jewish charities split over bill to require more giving

NEW YORK — A controversial bill to clean up the charitable foundation world is stirring mixed reactions among Jewish philanthropists.

Co-sponsored by Reps. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Roy Blunt (R- Mo.), the bill would force foundations to give away more of their endowments each year to non-profits and charities.

Under the House Charitable Giving Act, the nation's 64,000 foundations, including 7,000 Jewish family funds, would not be allowed to include their annual administrative costs as expenses.

Foundations currently are required to give at least 5 percent of their endowments to charity, but can claim overhead such as staff salaries, office maintenance and travel expenses as part of that mandatory giving.

Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, which represents some 800 Jewish family foundations, said he found members split over the reform bill.

Still, considering that the bill would require more charitable giving in tight economic times, "I was surprised to find such mixed reactions," Charendoff said.

The bill surfaced in response to an April report in the San Jose Mercury News that one of the nation's wealthiest patrons, the James Irvine Foundation, awarded lavish salaries and compensation packages to its president while slashing grants as its assets fell sharply.

The bill has divided the foundation world, which has grown rapidly in recent years. Foundations across the country are worth a total of $480 billion. Jewish foundations, which have doubled in number in the last decade, make up about $30 billion of that.

On one side are groups like the Council on Foundations, a professional association that calls the bill a "danger" to its membership.

On the other are reformists such as the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which wants more annual giving and maintains that the 100 wealthiest foundations would distribute $900 million more each year under the new law.

Charendoff said JFN members also remain divided.

"This is a highly nuanced issue that does not appear to enjoy a consensus among our members," he said.

While the JFN will not take sides in the debate because its membership does not entirely support one side, Charendoff long has encouraged Jewish foundations to give more than the required 5 percent.

But he acknowledged "the leap between saying that and wanting Congress to legislate that."

"I don't believe there's a deep understanding in the pending legislation of the philanthropic world," Charendoff added.

Charendoff instead wants to encourage Jewish foundations "to do better, rather than trying to force them through legislation."