Catholic Worker Altruism Isn’t Deductible
The Los Angeles Times recently ran a story on Los Angeles Catholic Worker (LACW), a part of the lay Catholic Worker movement founded over seventy years ago by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin to “feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, and clothe the naked.” Like other public service organizations located on skid row in downtown Los Angeles, LACW operates a free soup kitchen, hospitality house for the homeless, AIDS ministry, hospice for the dying, and a newspaper. What sets LACW apart from other organizations is its refusal to register with the IRS as a tax-exempt nonprofit. The stance is a testament to founder Day’s caution to keep the federal government at arm’s length. As an organization, this means LACW denies itself access to institutional funding from foundations, government and other monies.
The roughly 135 Catholic Worker communities in the U.S. are independent of one another and have no central organization or official relationship with the church hierarchy. Almost anyone can launch a Catholic Worker group, and can decide whether or not the benefits of signing up with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) outweigh the government oversight. There are a number of Catholic Worker organizations even within California that are registered with the IRS, if only to satisfy some local food banks.
Since the LACW is not a registered group, contributions to the organization are not tax-deductible, even though LACW caters to the neediest of the needy. According to the article, the group depends on no-strings-attached altruism through a small but loyal base of benefactors. Most of the donations come in through the mail stream in the amount of about $25 or $50. Annually, the group collects about $200,000. Donors say they don’t donate to deduct it from their taxes, but because it is what the gospels are calling on them to do. Martin Sheen, a generous supporter of LACW, says the lack of a write-off makes contributions to the Catholic Worker “the purest form of charity.”
This sentiment brings into question the meaning of true altruism. Tax breaks should provide folks with an excuse to give, not a reason. While it is recommended all philanthropic organizations go through the IRS process, if only to bring in more donations and assure donors the funds are not misspent, is this the motivation behind philanthropy? Adam Smith observed hundreds of years ago there was something in man’s nature that “interest(s) him in the fortunes of others, and render(s) their happiness necessary to him, though he derive(s) nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” It seems LACW’s donors understand this simple pleasure.