Nonprofits serve a role others won't

  • Article by: DOUG STONE
  • Updated: March 8, 2012 - 8:07 PM

And for that, tax-exempt status is a reasonable thing for society to offer.

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Counterpoint

I'm not sure what Jason Lewis's point was in his anti-nonprofit commentary ("One's break is another's tax burden," March 4).

Is he against nonprofits because he believes the only really useful organization in society is a for-profit business?

Or is he against them because they are somehow stealing from the tax coffers because they are tax-exempt?

Or is he against them because the ones he cited espouse more progressive causes that he can tolerate?

Most nonprofits were organized to fill a need or provide a service that was not being filled either by the private sector or government. I have worked for many nonprofits as a communications consultant or as a volunteer and have donated to many others.

If there weren't a St. Paul-based Books For Africa, for example, who would have shipped more than 26 million books to schoolchildren in Africa since 1988?

Or if there weren't a JDRF to help raise money for a cure for diabetes, would we be as far along on that path as we are?

The same could be said for the Heart Association or the Cancer Society or other health-related nonprofits.

And how about local PTAs whose members spend countless hours raising funds for their kids' schools, funds that a cash-strapped state isn't providing?

From health to education to social action, nonprofits serve their communities and communities around the world where government and business can't or won't do the job. Sometimes, the nonprofits work with government and business, which makes for a powerful alliance.

And, yes, highly endowed foundations also make a huge contribution in these areas, funding innovative ideas and sparking social change.

Lewis wants to be "spared the outrage over questioning the status of so-called 'nonprofits.'" I'm not outraged over his comments, just mystified. Whom does he think would do the work that the nonprofits do if they didn't exist?

But what seems to bother him the most is those nonprofits that he thinks have a social or political agenda. And, according to his examples, they are all progressive groups.

Growth & Justice has sought to expand the business debate about taxes to say we can have higher taxes, economic growth and economic justice.

In recent years, it has focused on improving public investments in education as a cornerstone of the state's future economic growth. You may disagree with some of Growth & Justice's views, but the group makes substantial contributions to the public discussion in Minnesota.

It does something that neither government nor a private business would do.

The same goes for the Transit for Livable Communities, a group that Lewis sneers at for its advocacy of public transit and bikes as an alternative to spending millions more on freeways. I would argue that the community is a better place because of groups like this that are contributing to the public good.

Lewis offers no sarcastic comments about conservative-oriented nonprofits that also pay no taxes, groups like the Center of the American Experiment and the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. Apparently, if you advocate for free enterprise and limited government, it's OK to be tax-exempt.

While I don't necessarily agree with these groups, I welcome them and their ideas to the public square and have no problems with their tax status.

Also unmentioned are the tax-exempt political issue groups that are spending millions in this year's Republican presidential primary and will spend millions more in the general election on both sides.

In my mind, this kind of unrestricted spending on elections poses a much greater danger to our democracy than do the myriad community-based nonprofits that provide important services and ideas.

Private businesses and corporations obviously play a vital role in our society. But they don't do everything, and neither does government. Nonprofits fill in the gaps and go where others won't.

They also energize the communities in which they work, and they contribute greatly to the public well-being.

Exempting them from taxes is a small price to pay. We should be honoring their work, not sneering at it.

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Doug Stone, of St. Paul, is a communications consultant.

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