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Trevor Neilson

Trevor Neilson

Posted January 6, 2009 | 04:56 PM (EST)

A Philanthropy Strategy for President Obama


Faced with the greatest set of challenges of any new President in recent history, President-Elect Obama will need unprecedented support -- and flexibility -- from the non-profit sector as he works to implement his agenda.

He will be asking for that support at the worst possible moment. Almost every philanthropist has been impacted by the economic downturn, with many foundations losing at least 20-30 percent of their grant-making budgets. As a result, non-profit organizations around the country and the world are scrambling to fund their programs at the exact same moment their programs are needed most. As an example, food banks are reporting more than 30 percent increases in demand for food while donations drop by more than 20 percent.

Non-profit leaders are putting on a brave face -- hopefully citing statistics that showed an increase in giving during the depression, optimistically stating that they are sure that during this time of need philanthropists will step up to the plate. But the most optimistic of these leaders will privately admit that things look bad -- and are getting worse.

President -Elect Obama's mandate for change should include a set actions aimed at changing and engaging the philanthropic world while creating incentives for flexibility during these challenging times.

There are five key actions Obama should take to harness the power of philanthropy as he works to implement his agenda;

Convene the nation's philanthropists and ask them to help

Within the first few months of his administration, President Obama should invite the leaders of the nation's top one hundred foundations and explicitly ask them to help him implement his agenda. From addressing the humanitarian crisis created by the war in Iraq to addressing domestic unemployment and homelessness linked to the economic crisis, philanthropists should be asked to address the specific problems facing our nation. They should also be asked to design their own approaches to these challenges, working collaboratively in an unprecedented way.

Call on young philanthropists to start giving now instead of waiting until they are old.

Far too many high net worth individuals have taken an old-view of philanthropy -- that it is something they will do later in their life. They should follow the lead of Bill Gates and his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Richard Branson and his Virgin Unite efforts and others who have rejected that approach in favor of deeply engaging in philanthropy at the height of their careers.

Create tax incentives for for-profit companies with a social purpose

One of the most exciting developments in the social sector is the emergence of for-profit companies with a specific social purpose or social responsibility arm. Often these companies have a greater impact than their non-profit peers and have the added advantage of being financially sustainable, independent of donors. These companies don't enjoy the tax benefits of being non-profit companies but should be encouraged through a new tax incentive that recognizes their vital role in addressing social issues.

Overhaul the nation's tax code with the specific goal of incentivizing giving

President Obama should ask his economic team to develop a set of recommendations aimed at increasing philanthropic contributions during the next few years. These might include an increase in the percentage limit for corporate charitable contributions, an expansion of the IRA Charitable Rollover, increasing tax benefit for donations to prioritized causes important to the nation or new provisions aimed at encouraging donations by people who do not itemize their returns.

Use the power of the White House to recognize and reward philanthropic impact

Every year the Kennedy Center Honors recognize those in the performing arts for their contributions to American culture. President Obama should create an annual award for those in the philanthropy and the social sector who make a lasting impact on the challenges faced by our nation.

Our new President faces unbelievable challenges. But with these challenges comes the opportunity to build a better, stronger America. President Obama can inspire America's current -- and future -- philanthropists to be a critical part of the change he has promised. He will need their help.