The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

Friday, January 2, 2009

Speaking of gifts and charity
Tom Smith

Something you can do these days is give someone the gift of having given a gift yourself to some charity.  So you might get a card that says, We have given a goat on your behalf to the village of Ubuti in East Ubutistan.  As a follow on, you might get a picture of the villagers posing with their new goat, which is from you, sort of.

I'm not saying this is not a nice thing.  It is a nice thing.  What puzzles me is just what it is.  Not from a legal point of view.  I'm not aware it raises any legal issues, interesting or otherwise.  I just think it's a little baffling what it is.  Is it a gift? Somebody says to you, instead of giving you something you don't really want or need, I have elected to give some people something they really do want and need. But then what does that have to do with me?  Supposedly, the person sort of forgoing the gift gets the credit for it, but what credit is there, really?  I didn't give anybody a gift.  Nobody asked me if I wanted to forgo a gift in order to enable the goat giving.  I just get a card that says, you just gave a goat to someone, to which I might reasonably respond, I did?  Maybe the idea is that the giver thinks I am such a good person I would prefer to have a goat given than to get a gift myself.  Well, thanks!  If you get a gift of this sort, do you write a thank you note for it?

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Tom Smith
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Comments

I do this -- it started when I asked family members to take what they would have spent on me and donate it to the charities that help soldiers and their families. Then I decided that I did not see the point of buying them more stuff that they don't need or really want (I am old enough so my expectations that I can find the perfect gift are zero), so I cheerfully informed them that their gift money was going to the same cause.

Sometimes I manage to match charity with the donee -- a dog-loving brother was informed that he gave to support servicemen's/women's pets while they are deployed.

Or perhaps it is also a way of saying, "I did not get you anything, but not because I am too cheap, or because I just did not bother. It is because I am noble (and I know that you are too)."

Posted by: JVDeLong | Jan 3, 2009 10:54:49 AM

Who gets the tax write-off for such charitable gifts-by-proxy, the actual gift-giver or the person in whose name the gift is made? I assume the former.

I don't think that this sort of gift-by-proxy can be characterized as a gift to the person in whose name the charitable donation is made, because the only people who receive anything are the third-party donee and the actual gift-giver (who gets the tax benefit and whatever psychic and/or reputational benefits might result from publicly engaging in charitable works and/or supporting a cause he or she selects and approves of).

Though I think the scenario that commenter JVDeLong details above is a little different, because he explicitly asked his would-be gift-givers to instead make a donation to a cause or causes he endorses.

I also wonder what sort of rules of ettiquette apply to such gifts-by-proxy. For example, does one have an obligation to ensure that a gift-by-proxy is made to a charity that the ostensible donor endorses (or at least one which the ostenible donor will not find distasteful)?

Posted by: The Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk | Jan 5, 2009 9:25:57 AM