12/21/2012 04:26 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Nonprofits Should Focus on Gun Control -- Not Donor Tax Breaks

The tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., forcefully underlined the absurdity of the nonprofit world's priorities.

For the past couple of years, organizations such as the Council on Foundations, Independent Sector, the National Council of Nonprofits, and United Way Worldwide have fought and lobbied furiously against efforts by President Obama and some Congressional Democrats to limit the amount wealthy people can deduct for their charitable gifts. The groups have spent a lot of time and money on this fight, including buying a two-page ad in the newspaper Politico, signed by over 900 nonprofits. What's more, several large charities have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay lobbyists to protect the charitable deduction.

Nonprofit leaders say efforts to limit the charitable deduction will drastically reduce giving in the country. Yet no evidence backs up that assertion. Prominent researchers have suggested that the ideas President Obama has proposed in the past to limit write-offs would cut charitable giving by $1-billion or $2-billion, a tiny sum compared with the $217-billion or so Americans give every year.

In throwing their weight behind this narrow effort, nonprofit leaders demonstrated once again their lack of concern about major issues that threaten not only the national interest but the stability of the nonprofit world itself.

Why focus on the charitable deduction and not on more important issues such as gun violence, or the public accountability of nonprofits, or the need for a substantial increase in foundation money, or the preservation of important social safety-net programs?

In a report on nonprofit advocacy Independent Sector issued this fall, the organization listed six priority issues for nonprofit advocacy, such as clarifying the rules on lobbying by charities and foundations and preventing the IRS from asking overly burdensome questions on disclosure forms. While some of the ideas Independent Sector emphasized would indeed lead to a smoother-functioning nonprofit world, not one of them speaks to major, urgent public needs, the strengthening of civil society, or a broader vision of what charities should achieve.

For so many nonprofits, the loss of a few dollars seems to be far more important than promoting policies that benefit the public interest. What's "good for my organization" often appears to outweigh what is good for all nonprofits and for the people they serve.

During the debate about the charitable deduction, it was interesting that none of the executive directors of large nonprofits, many of them grossly overpaid, offered to reduce their salaries, bonuses, or benefits to offset the possible loss of charitable contributions to their organizations.

Perhaps the Newtown massacre can offer a new, redemptive leadership opportunity for nonprofits. Gun violence affects every cause nonprofits focus on. It bedevils schools, health institutions, and domestic violence groups, and is a key concern of social-change organizations. What's more, the rampages of gun violence have put nonprofit offices and religious institutions in harm's way.

Until now, the National Rifle Association, a timid President, much less courageous members of Congress, and apathetic nonprofits have combined to thwart effective gun controls that could prevent the mass killings and senseless deaths that America has faced over the past couple of decades.

Only a handful of nonprofits have made gun control a priority. Even fewer foundations have given money to the cause, and most of their grants have gone to research, not to mobilize the opposition.

The National Rifle Association, with a membership of four million, has struck fear in the hearts of politicians who would like to legislate some form of gun control but don't see any popular support for such reforms. The NRA, however, is no match, either in numbers or money, for the combined strength of the nonprofit world.

If major nonprofit organizations and their leadership groups started a sweeping advocacy campaign, similar to the effort they dedicated to saving the charitable deduction, they could ensure that America had effective gun controls in place.

Newtown has provided a shift in public attitude and an openness to change that can lay the groundwork for a massive overhaul of gun laws if nonprofits reach out to churches, politicians, and law-enforcement agencies to form coalitions to push the idea. But there is no time to lose.

The extent to which nonprofit leaders are willing to rise to this occasion will tell us a great deal about their courage, their skills, and their vision of a peaceful and stable society.

Pablo Eisenberg, a regular Chronicle contributor, is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. His e-mail address is