Outside Edge: Philanthropy avec frontieres

Charitable giving seems to have a low priority in the European dream, writes Nick Cater.

With the French "non" vote still resounding across Europe, what is the voluntary sector to make of such a kerfuffle?

Let's not get bogged down by the politics of the pound in our pocket, nor by the alleged corruption of Europe's institutions.

For some charities, there has been a flow of cash, but with pitfalls - it's top-down, margin-free, pre-planned funding whose required actions can divert charities away from their core activities. And the reporting rules are usually so Byzantine that the paperwork can take longer than the project.

Supposedly tight EU financial controls can actually encourage poor spending.

I once rang Brussels to check how far a charity for which I was consulting would have to twist itself in knots to fit a budget line.

One incorrectly placed digit found an official so desperate to meet a fund distribution deadline that anyone even remotely dubious could have got rich quick.

Take the slow payments, which cost a charity colleague 20 per cent of the contract value between doing the work and getting paid, months later, when the value of the payment currency had declined. The Euro may have solved that problem for some, but does the money actually flow any faster?

Europe's real sin, however, is that in decades of building a single market for work, business, travel and obscene subsidies, it has never created a single market for charity and giving to allow what I long ago dubbed 'philanthropy sans frontieres'.

Try to make a cross-border donation and you'll find a maze of tax regulations surrounding each state's voluntary sector. For cash donations, tax might have to be paid by both donor and recipient, and the rules on shares, property and artworks are even harder to unravel.

We live in a globalised environment with unfettered travel, trade, investment and communications. And yet double-dipping taxation blights giving between national neighbours - a gross failure of European reality to live up to the European dream.

Some heroic individuals and charities are tunneling under the maze. The Transnational Giving Europe agreement allows tax-efficient donations between CAF UK and four other major foundations for passing on to final beneficiaries - or pressing for change.

Leading the charge is the Brussels-based King Baudouin Foundation, which has launched www.givingineurope.org to explain the legal and fiscal maze so that - in time - all 25 member states can enter into 'philanthropy avec frontieres' while also making the case for urgent reform. It's a great start, but the challenge remains to tear down Europe's barricades against giving. Let the call ring out: liberte, egalite, charite!

- Nick Cater is a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk.

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