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Is Philanthropy Doing Its Best?

BC Law spawns national think tank to push for reform.


Concerned that current philanthropic giving structures are not living up to expectations and are in need of reform, Professor Ray Madoff initiated a series of conversations that has led to the formation of a national think tank, the Forum on Philanthropy and the Public Good. Its inaugural event took place last October at the University Club in Washington, DC, where it hosted “The Rise of Donor-Advised Funds: Should Congress Respond?”, the first of many projects that will explore the $50-billion charitable fund sector.

“People assume that what happens under the umbrella of philanthropy must, by its very nature, be optimally serving the public good,” says Madoff, the forum director, an expert on philanthropy and tax law, and recipient of Inside Philanthropy’s philanthropy critic of the year award. “But sometimes the rules governing philanthropy do not produce that result.”

The forum, whose genesis was a 2014 conference at BC Law on promoting reform in philanthropy, operates as a time-limited think tank that is bringing together national experts to study philanthropy policy. “By raising the level of sophistication of policy discussions and their timely expression,” states the group’s website, “we believe that the forum will play a useful, non-partisan role in raising, exploring, and resolving issues whose resolution stands to promote the use of philanthropy in pursuit of the public good.”

With the support of organizations such as the Ford Foundation and Carnegie Corporation, Madoff, Adjunct Professor William Bagley, and others are assembling policy makers, scholars, and practitioners to determine if the rules governing the philanthropic sector are appropriate and whether Congress and regulators need to take action. “There has been too little discussion and debate about these fundamental questions surrounding philanthropy,” says Madoff.

The forum’s leading inquiries also include how the law should treat large university endowments and if the current payout rule for private foundations is performing as it should.

Up next for the Forum on Philanthropy and the Public Good is an April conference in conjunction with Stanford University on “Giving in Time: Perpetuity, Limited Life, and the Responsibility of Philanthropy,” in Palo Alto. Also being planned is a conference on why universities have endowments.