Written by David B. Boodt
The Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs – generally referred to as the “Filer Commission” after its chair John H. Filer - started in November 1973 and disbanded two years later (Anheier, 2014). During those two years, the Filer Commission studied charitable giving in America and nonprofit entities that were the recipients of the charitable giving (Brilliant, 2000).
The Filer Commission is important because it published the first detailed report on philanthropy in America. The report is entitled, Giving in America: Toward a Stronger Voluntary Sector. Many people refer to the report simply as Giving in America, and it included several recommendations on how giving can be strengthened.
The report Giving in America launched a detailed study of nonprofits. The Program on Non-Profit Organizations at Yale University was one of the first (Anheier, 2014). The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University is now a whole school dedicated to the study of philanthropy. Because of Giving in America, nonprofits formed two trade groups, the Independent Sector and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, to advocate for the needs of all nonprofits. Importantly, Giving in America introduced nonprofit private entities as the “third sector” after the government and for-profit private entities (Anheier, 2014).
The late 1960s were a tumultuous time in America. The Vietnam War divided the country and violent protests were common. Even amid such events, the United States Congress passed the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which regulated charitable giving and foundations. During this same time, the Commission on Foundations and Private Philanthropy (known as the Peterson Commission, after its Chairman Peter G. Peterson) was created to influence public policy and prevent further legislation limiting philanthropy. Later, the Filer Commission followed on the work of the Peterson Commission (Brilliant, 2000).
The Filer Commission began in November 1973. It disbanded two year later. The goal of the Filer Commission was to study giving in America and the recipients of the giving, nonprofit entities, and to make recommendations how giving could be strengthened. The Filer Commission was convinced of the importance of voluntary giving to life in America, but it was concerned about the strength of some nonprofit entities and the continuation of the charitable tax deduction (Giving in America, 1975).
John D. Rockefeller III, the grandson of the oil baron, John D. Rockefeller, is credited with conceiving of the need to study philanthropy and giving in America (Brilliant, 2000). Members of the Filer Commission included people of different experiences and backgrounds, including religious leaders, former government officials, and business executives (Giving in America, 1975).
The Filer Commission, because it was the first to attempt a detailed study, lacked information about patterns of giving and why people give. More than 100 specialists in economics, sociology, and law made up an advisory committee which directed more than 85 research projects. The research projects covered arts and culture, health, and education. The Filer Commission also conducted a national survey asking around 3,000 individuals about giving. The survey was conducted with the theory that taxes, and incentives created using tax deductions, had a direct impact on how much people chose to give. The views of both donors and recipients were sought (Giving in America, 1975).
Before the Filer Commission, American society was typically broken into either government and private entities. The Filer Commission split private entities into for-profit entities and nonprofit entities. Today, the most common framework for American society is government, for-profit private entities, and nonprofit private entities. This is why nonprofits are sometimes call the “third sector”, the “voluntary sector” or the “independent sector” (Anheier, 2014).
Findings of the Filer Commission
The voluntary sector is large and important. It is an importance supplement to the government and provides an alternative to what can be impersonal services. However, the voluntary sector is under economic pressure.
Giving in America, of both time and money, mostly comes from individuals. It goes to religion, education, health, social welfare, and the arts. Without individual giving, nonprofits will fail. Giving is declining.
With individual giving decreasing and with rising expectations for health, education and welfare services as basic entitlements, the government has taken over for nonprofits in many services once the focus of private nonprofits. Government's larger role raises basic questions as to what services should the government provide and what services should private organizations be responsible for.
Our tax structure strengthens the finances of nonprofits in two ways: excluding nonprofits from certain tax obligations; and allowing individuals to deduct gifts to nonprofits from their personal income taxes. However, the charitable deduction is being challenged as unfair to those who make less money, and not as important with the increase in the standard deduction.
Recommendations of the Filer Commission
While important, many of the recommendations of the Filer Commission were never enacted. Regarding taxes and giving, the charitable deduction was kept because it encourages giving, but Congress has not allowed the charitable deduction to be in addition to the standard deduction. Also, the law was never changed to allow families with low incomes to be able to deduct even more than the value of the actual gift.
The Filer Commission recommended that large nonprofits should prepare and distribute annual reports on their finances and services. Today, most nonprofits do prepare an annual report, and information about their finances is available to all because their tax forms are made public. Contrary to the desire of the Filer Commission, nonprofits continue to have a duty to police how a grantee spends money given to it by the nonprofit and are limited in how much they are allowed to lobby Congress.
The Filer Commission recommended that a permanent government commission on the nonprofit sector be established by Congress. Although a government commission was never established, two private organizations were formed to help bring together the nonprofit sector.
Outcomes of the Filer Commission
The Filer Commission is best known for identifying nonprofits and voluntary acts as the “Third Sector”, separate from the government sector and the business sector.
Another outcome of the Filer Commission’s concern about the functioning and future of the nonprofit sector was the creation of two organizations, the Independent Sector and the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy. The Independent Sector was formed in 1980 as an umbrella organization to help unite the nonprofit sector, conduct research, and advocate for effective national policies (Independent Sector Records). The National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy was formed by a coalition of recipients of philanthropy to ensure that nonprofit organizations continued to have adequate resources to continue to provide needed services (National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy).
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
One of the most American of ideas is people voluntarily giving for the good of others. Other countries rely on the government to solve community problems (Anheier, 2014). It is the American way for private organizations to do much of the work and for the work to be supported by private giving. The Filer Commission helped to strengthen private giving to private organizations.
Key Related Ideas
- Charitable giving in the United States.
- Volunteering in the United States.
Important People Related to the Topic
- John H. Filer, Chair of Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs.
- John D. Rockefeller III, sponsor of Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs and Commission on Foundations and Private Philanthropy.
Related Nonprofit Organizations
- Independent Sector
- National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy
Reflection Question - For education, social services, and the arts, what is the proper role of the national government, the state government, and private nonprofits?
- Anheier, Helmet K. Nonprofit Organizations - Theory, Management, Policy, 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2014.
- Brilliant, Eleanor L. Private Charity and Public Inquiry: A History of the Filer and Peterson Commissions. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
- Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs. Giving in America: Toward a Stronger Voluntary Sector, 1975. http://hdl.handle.net/2450/889
- Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs, 1964-1980, Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives, IUPUI University Library, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.
- Independent Sector Records, 1971-1996, Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives, IUPUI University Library, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.
- National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. The Donee Group founded NCRP. Accessed on October 27, 2017. https://www.ncrp.org/timeline/the-donee-group-founded-ncrp
- National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. 30 Years: A History from 1976 to 2006. Accessed on October 27, 2017. http://www.ncrp.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/NCRPhistory_HighRes.pdf
This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.