A Preview of Our Policy Research Agenda

Now fully funded and underway, Independent Sector’s policy team, in collaboration with our Public Policy Committee, have taken on a policy research agenda that will be critical to informing and aligning the sector as we approach a new Congress in 2019. The team had the opportunity earlier in the summer to talk with many of you to gather input and test assumptions about the shape of that agenda.

As I did for the committee, I’d like to give you the highlights of this four-part plan.

Expert Convening

Highlight giving policy facts, trends, and proposals

Impact of New Tax Policies

Fill information gap on new UBIT costs for nonprofits


Compare cost and impact of various giving policy proposals

Polling and Messaging

Test messaging to frame charitable giving policy to target audiences

Before sharing specifics, let me be clear that this research effort has three core aims. First, we will collect available data to sharpen our understanding of the impact the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017 is having on our sector. Second, we will assess where we have alignment in the sector around policy-specific challenges, trends, and prescriptions – and where we don’t. Finally, we will test whether there are better ways to frame the messages we use with policymakers as we advocate for the policy changes we seek.

The research program we launched this fall, and which will run through the first quarter of 2019, will move us forward on all three fronts.

On October 15, Independent Sector and the Tax Policy Center sponsored a convening of experts from across the country to assess how changes to the tax code impact charitable giving. This conversation, which will be summarized in a publicly available report in November, affirmed that leading researchers remain aligned in two major areas:

  1. Donors of all types respond to tax policy changes.
  2. The 2017 tax bill probably will reduce the total dollars donated to charity and exacerbate a ten-year decline in the number of households donating to charity.

These ideas, supported by robust research, contradict those policymakers who claim that tax policy does not play a determinative role in charitable giving. These are a few of the highlights, and I hope you will dig into the more detailed report once it’s available in November.

We have also heard from nonprofit leaders that there was uncertainty about how the 2017 tax bill’s two provisions on unrelated business income tax (UBIT) will affect nonprofits. As efforts aimed to delay implementation and perhaps repeal these provisions advance, we quickly need data to inform policymakers’ decisions. This month we commissioned a rapid analysis of the UBIT provisions around both the fringe benefits and bucketing, and we aim to have an initial view of their impact by late November or early December.

Our research efforts for UBIT have been informed by survey findings shared with us by the Council on Foundations. We’re thankful to both our COF colleagues as well as the researchers leading our own research, Elizabeth Boris from the Urban Institute and Joe Cordes from the George Washington University. To further inform our efforts, we encourage you to complete the UBIT survey – your timely input is critical.

While the contours of a new Congress remain unclear, we are preparing for the possibility that 2019 will bring the opportunity to revisit the universal charitable deduction and other incentives that promote giving in America. We will commission a comparative analysis of the charitable giving proposals currently under consideration by Congress. Research findings give nonprofits and policymakers information needed to determine next steps.

Finally, drawing upon lessons learned in 2017, we will test how we should talk about charitable giving with policymakers. Historically, nonprofit conversations with policymakers about giving focus on data and projections about steep declines in giving due to changes in tax law. However, we know that the repercussions of the tax bill extend beyond hard dollars and cents. These policies represent how society prioritizes the work of charitable organizations. While sound data will always matter, we seek to communicate the value of charitable giving policies based on shared principles. Through the first quarter of 2019, we will be working with researchers to shape test the charitable giving messages that resonate with our core audiences.

As you might gather from this brief overview of the research agenda, the IS policy team is working hard to acquire the information and messages needed to successfully shape the federal legislative agenda for 2019. We welcome your questions, your insights, and your support.


Types: Blog, Policy Update
Global Topics: Congress, IS Member, Public Policy, Voices for Good
Policy Issues: Charitable Deduction, Charitable Giving, Nonprofit Operations, Tax & Fiscal Policy, UBIT