The charity net

The man on the plane got talking about the business people in his town when the United Way campaign began last year:

'' 'Look,' they said to themselves, 'we've got what we've always wanted in Washington, someone to get the government off our backs. Now we have to show we can take some responsibility ourselves.' The campaign brought in 15 percent more than ever before.''

This unsolicited specific example returns to mind as the highly encouraging national totals of last year's charitable giving are calculated. The latest report says that America's individual and institutional givers rose above the economic downturn and set a record of $53.6 billion. This was 12.3 percent higher than 1980. It meant the first real gain, outstripping inflation, in three years.

Earlier a national United Way official echoed a familiar warning when he said: ''There is no way business, foundation, and individual giving . . . can match the level of federal tax dollars no longer available for human services.'' But many Americans are unquestionably stretching themselves to try to reduce the gap.

Those who are not, especially in the relatively ungenerous business sector, are now challenged by example, exhorted by the administration, and wooed by new tax incentives and forms of giving. In all this there is much to offset the notion of what last week's report called ''fear-inspired'' generosity in the face of federal cutbacks.

That man on the plane was not talking about fear but about a sense of human and community responsibility. He was virtually anticipating the head of President Reagan's Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives, who recently said, ''Forget the 'gap' stuff''--and called for a more basic focus: the reassessment of community needs and the action to meet them.

Seeing our brother's need and supplying it. This is a criterion for all.

Was the task force asking too much in suggesting that individuals raise charitable donations to 5 percent (about $100 billion) from an average of 2 percent of annual income? Or that companies double contributions to 2 percent (about $6 billion in cash and $6 billion in goods and services) over the next four years? The latter is similar to urgings by the Business Roundtable and other business groups.

Such goals are still far less than traditional tithing. They should spur all to set fair ones in line with their own circumstances.

Government and recipient organizations are trying to make the giving easier. For the first time individuals who use the short tax form will be able to take a deduction based on charitable gifts. Donors in higher brackets can arrange with recipients to obtain advantages through deductible but deferred gifts, for example, or gifts of capital with the donor continuing to receive income from it.

There are some ironies. For instance, one new law invites corporate giving by raising the limit on deductions for corporate contributions from 5 percent to 10 percent. Yet it also liberalizes depreciation allowances so that taxable income is reduced--and thus the deduction, which is based on this income, likewise shrinks. So this particular incentive to give may shrink, too.

Also, less might be given by those who raced for deductions that meant more under 1981 rates than they do now.

All of which brings us back to the fundamental incentive for charity beyond tax breaks, corporate norms, perfunctory benevolence. It can be simply expressed in the biblical sense of charity as love: ''And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor . . . and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.''

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