2007 may prove to be a very bad year for activist groups who discovered decades ago that they could raise lots of tax-exempt cash by telling the rest of us how to run our lives. They preached planetary doom and gloom, sermonized about the evils of capitalism and coerced corporations to become more transparent, more sustainable and more socially responsible. They pressured world leaders to ban the use of DDT while millions of people were dying of malaria. They used their political clout to oppose economic and resource development in areas of the world where clean water and basic sanitation are luxuries that only a few can afford. They demonized agricultural biotechnology and, as a result, starving children were denied access to donated food.
But now, those winds of change may be reversing course. Tax-exempt activist groups who have been demanding “corporate social responsibility” are discovering the hidden meaning behind that old English idiom: “What is good for the goose is good for the gander.” My mother used to utter these words often, but I must admit that I never understood what she was trying to say and why she was so fixated on geese.
Developments in Germany, England and Australia will no doubt clarify the meaning for the activist charities. The German government has announced plans to reform its laws on charitable organizations and donations. A report prepared for the German Ministry of Finance found that the “chaotic proliferation” of charitable organizations had enabled special interest groups to avoid taxes and to win undue public influence. According to a recent article by journalist Thomas Deichmann, Greenpeace may lose its charity status in Germany because of its political campaigning and alleged illegal activities. If that happens, the Rainbow Warrior’s goose will indeed be cooked.
The British are at least one step ahead of the Germans. Last November, Parliament approved the Charities Act which seeks to enhance transparency and accountability among tax-free groups. Hail Britannia!
Meanwhile, Down Under, the Australian Tax Office has announced that it is cracking down on charities engaging in partisan political campaigning. The Australian Broadcasting Company reported last weekend that “in a review of 59 groups claiming charitable status . . . inspectors found that many of them accept money from the public and then pass it on in political donations.” The news report also stated that “at least one environmental charity has already been stripped of its tax-exempt status for what the Tax Office said was inappropriate political campaigning.”