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The Kindness of Taxpayers

There's a right way for governments to give away our dough to charities. Then there's the other way.

The Kindness of Taxpayers
(Illustration by Selcuk Demirel)

In the waning days of his administration, as the wolves were starting to circle and friends were looking few, Matt Amorello, head of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority until August, started handing out money. The Boston College Associates Program got $5,000, as did a community health center in the North End. In all, according to a report in the Globe, Amorello distributed more than $52,000 to charities in the first six months of this year - more than four times the Turnpike Authority's rate of charitable giving in 2005. The obvious implication: Amorello was trying to buy support from prominent political leaders by contributing to their favorite causes.

Perhaps you're not shocked. This kind of behavior, the cynics among us suspect, happens all the time. Yet that doesn't make it right. Moreover, some wondered in the wake of the revelations, what's the Turnpike Authority, or any other government agency for that matter, doing handing out money to charities? Since any money the government has is taken from us by coercion - by way of taxes, fees, and the like - all of this smacks of compulsory giving. It just shouldn't be allowed.

That's a good, clean answer - but also entirely unrealistic. Charities and governments are deeply intertwined, so much so that each now relies on the other. Most private human service and arts charities receive state and federal funds to carry out their work. So, too, do many international organizations, such as CARE. It's understandable. For one, charities existed well before the rise of the social welfare state during the mid-20th century. Sometimes, rather than creating their own organizations, governments just provided funds to help nonprofits do their work. Moreover, charities have advantages over the government: They're less bureaucratic, more efficient, and frequently have better relationships with the clients they serve.

There are dangers to this, however. The Bush administration's funding of faith-based organizations oftentimes crosses the line between church and state. And from a charity's perspective, there is the risk of Seducing the Samaritan, the title of a 1997 book by the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based public policy think thank. The lure of government money can be powerful, causing nonprofits to change their mission or compromise their ideals to win a grant. As a result, some organizations, especially advocacy or policy focused groups, largely refuse government money or apply strict tests on independence and disclosure to any they might receive. And then there is the risk that government money can undermine a charity itself - a situation that Catholic Charities faced earlier this year when its church-based precepts clashed with the state's insistence that it permit adoptions by gay and lesbian couples.

These are all troubling issues. However, they don't really touch on the problems with the Turnpike Authority, where the donations appeared politically motivated and seemed outside the scope of the authority's charter. Of course, it makes sense when the National Endowment for the Arts funds a mural project or the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services hires the YMCA to help out with troubled teens - done after the recipients have participated in a competitive bidding process. But what is a state transportation agency doing handing out money to homeless shelters (as it did last November) or holding charity golf tournaments for Toys for Tots (as it does every year)?

Still, it seems mean-spirited to frown on helping the homeless. And sometimes the donations fit within the agency's mission. The Massachusetts Port Authority, for example, liberally dispenses money to community groups, underwriting sailing programs at Piers Park and handing out grants to South Boston nonprofits. It's an attempt to buy good will from communities affected by Logan Airport - a kind of bribe, if you will.

The real problem is that we have no idea how much of this stuff goes on (indeed, the state's budgeting system doesn't track charitable contributions separately). The solution is disclosure - at all levels. Change budgeting systems, require donations to be visible, and make them subject to public accountability. It doesn't really bother me if the Turnpike Authority makes a small donation to clean up Boston Harbor. But for it to fund a charity's award dinner honoring an influential pol? That's altogether different.

Tom Keane, a Boston-based freelance writer, contributes regularly to the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.

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