Civic Renewal and the Regulation of Non-Profits
227 Pages Posted: 2 Oct 2003
Civic Renewal and the Regulation of Non-profits analyzes four understandings of civic renewal, elaborated in the wake of Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone, in light of the federal regulatory scheme imposed upon voluntary associations that qualify as "exempt organizations" under the Internal Revenue Code. These perspectives emphasize the primacy of one or more of the following as indispensable elements of civic health: (1) cooperation and effective collective action, (2) self-governance (3) equality and representative institutions, and (4) the moral character of the community or the public spiritedness of citizens. The study analyzes how the different assumptions and purposes of these distinct perspectives on civic health suggest different, sometimes incompatible, recommendations for civic life and, by implication, for how voluntary associations should be regulated.
Because voluntary associations are central to most prescriptions for revitalizing civic health, the analysis reviews the empirical data bearing on the dynamics of associations and the impact participation has on association members. I then evaluate the expectations expressed by advocates of civic renewal in light of these empirical findings. I conclude that increased participation in voluntary organizations has the potential to further the civic goals of the first (cooperation) and third (equality and representative institutions) perspectives. In contrast, based upon the empirical evidence reviewed, I question whether it is reasonable or useful for civic renewal advocates to portray associational life as an important potential source of increased public spiritedness (the fourth perspective) or the attributes necessary for reflective self-governance (the second perspective). The alternative is for those who emphasize the latter two aspects of civic health to recognize that certain substantive civic values must be nurtured in areas outside of the formal institutions of civic life rather than expected as the automatic or likely byproduct of a robust civil society.
The heart of the study takes these findings and uses them to evaluate the existing regulation of voluntary associations by the Internal Revenue Code (the predominant source of the federal regulation of non-profits). In particular, I seek to clarify the ways in which existing tax rules further or undermine one or more of the civic goals elaborated in the first part. This part of the analysis also makes specific recommendations for regulatory reform to enhance the usefulness of non-profits for furthering the goals of each of the four civic renewal understandings.
Keywords: civil society, civic renewal, exempt organizations, non-profits, federal tax regulation, tax policy
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