No European philanthropic union just yet

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Ludwig Forrest and Gerry Salole

Ludwig Forrest and Gerry Salole

Member states’ tax regimes hinder cross-border philanthropy in Europe, write Gerry Salole and Ludwig Forrest.

Gerry Salole is Chief Executive of the European Foundation Centre and Ludwig Forrest is Coordinator of Transnational Giving Europe.

The myriad causes that foundations support are seldom restricted to national boundaries, so it is only natural that many are working more and more internationally. But if there is a willingness on the part of foundations to broaden their horizons and work across borders, the same dynamism and flexibility sadly cannot be ascribed to the fiscal environment they operate in. To say that this is unsatisfactory is more than slightly euphemistic, and a recent study released  by the European Foundation Centre and the Transnational Giving Europe network “Taxation of cross-border philanthropy in Europe after Persche and Stauffer – From landlock to free movement?” calls for less red-tape and non-discriminatory tax treatment for donors and philanthropic organisations throughout member states. This is, after all, a sector which provides direct employment to between 750,000 and 1 million individuals in the EU and spends between €83 and €150 billion annually.

Cross-border philanthropy should be straightforward, but it can in practice be both complex and costly. With this study we aim to raise awareness of the difficulties donors and foundations face when carrying out their invaluable work outside of their home country and to push for effective solutions to facilitate cross-border philanthropy in Europe.

Almost all member states of the European Union recognise the benefits of philanthropic activities for society by providing favourable tax treatment for charities and their donors. When an individual or a corporation makes a donation to a charity, they are able to deduct the amount from their taxable income or receive a similar benefit. Likewise, when charitable organisations receive money or generate income, they are in general eligible for tax concessions. However, the situation becomes complicated when money is donated to a charity based abroad, or when a charitable foundation generates income, through investments or fundraising for example, in a country other than the one in which it is registered.

A series of rulings by the European Court of Justice set out a “non-discrimination principle”, according to which Member States must award equal tax concessions to charities based in other Member States where the foreign charities can be shown to be “comparable” to domestic organisations holding charitable tax status. For example, a German donor who makes a gift to a Portuguese charity can deduct his donation from his taxable income, provided that the Portuguese charity can be shown to be comparable to a German one. Similarly, a UK charitable trust that has generated income from investments in Sweden may, if it can show itself to be comparable to a Swedish charity, claim a refund of taxes levied on that income. In practice, however, demonstrating comparability can be so complex that it hinders or even deters cross border-philanthropy.

The study examines the different ways that EU member states approach the question of comparability of foreign and domestic charitable organisations and the administrative procedures that charities and donors must follow in order to receive the tax incentives due to them. Even where member states have amended their laws to ensure formal compliance with the European non-discrimination principle, a number of procedural hurdles still exist.  Charities and donors often face long procedures, uncertainty and substantial costs for administrative and translation fees, legal advice and proceedings in national or European courts.

The rationale for this undertaking, then, is not only to provide practical solutions to the problems that the current fiscal framework presents, but also to see it as part of our sector’s responsibility to develop policy solutions to move matters forward. Philanthropy is a growing force, and using this study as a roadmap, the EFC and Transnational Giving Europe will continue to work with the European institutions and the national authorities to strive for our goal: tax effective cross-border philanthropy in Europe.

This study is based on 28 detailed country reports with useful practical information for donors and public-benefit organisations facing cross border situations, which are available to download from the EFC and TGE websites.

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