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Giving business a reason to back the arts

The curtain may soon rise on a new idea to fund the arts and human services in America.

It's called the National Seal of Philanthropy. And it could someday show up on everything from boxes of cereal to car ads in magazines.

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The proposal, now working its way toward federal legislation, would reward companies that contribute to charity or the arts by letting prospective customers know about their civic spirit. A special seal on products or advertisements would give consumers the choice of patronizing such businesses.

This idea for making profit a byproduct of contributing to nonprofit organizations sprouted from the grass roots of Sherborn, Mass., a rural bedroom community not far from Boston.

As the town selectmen put it: ''If the mechanisms of the free enterprise system were creatively employed to redeem corporations' generosity, then we would see a significant increase in monies available to nonprofit charitable and cultural organizations.'' The solution, as they saw it, was to reward philanthropy in a way that satisfied a corporation's primary interest in profitmaking, rather than altruistic giving.

A human fingerprint was chosen for the seal design, say organizers, because it symbolizes mankind's capacity for compassion and kindness.

The idea has the people of Sherborn, supporters of arts and human services in other parts of the country, and at least two state legislatures -- Iowa and Massachusetts -- excited. If enacted, the National Seal of Philanthropy would be issued to companies who contribute 1 to 5 percent of their annual gross profits to charitable and nonprofit groups.

According to Herbert Morrisey of the Massachusetts Department of Human Services, the seal would merge the two best qualities of a capitalistic democracy. ''This seal merges the competitive spirit of capitalism and the democratic spirit of generosity,'' he said at the Sherborn ceremony last month that launched the project.

''It will bridge the gap between philanthropic intention and the incentive to contribute the assets that are available to corporate America,'' he continued.

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Lewis Randa, director of Sherborn's Life Experience School for handicapped children, conceived the plan and has been pursuing it since 1980. He tells how he got the idea:

''For 10 years our school had a special arrangement with a Midwest corporation that sent us from 1 to 5 percent of their gross profits annually. In an effort to demonstrate our appreciation we looked at philanthropy in America and found that missing link: a means of recognizing companies to ensure that goodwill patronage would follow.

''We can't continue to ask companies throughout this country to give to the nonprofit community and give nothing in return. We have something to give and that is recognition. People will support products,'' he says.

The magic of the plan, says Randa, is that the whole thing can be handled without one new form, and no bureacracy.

''It will all be handled on your standard income tax form. When an individual , company, or corporation fills out their form, there will be a little box to check if they would like to qualify as a national philanthropist. If they check that box -- and directions will make clear that they are making public their acts of generosity -- the IRS would simply program their computers to compile lists of those who give 1 to 5 percent of income or gross profits and that information would be passed on to an appropriate federal agency or a nonprofit organization that would be contracted to administer the seal.''

Randa says this means simply sending out letters from Congress, thanking the individual, company, or corporation, as well as presenting them with the National Seal of Philanthropy (fingerprint), with the rules and regulations on how that seal can be used on products, or in advertisements for services.

''And this is all voluntary,'' says Randa.

''As it stands now, as long as corporations are taxed and the money filtered down to us, we get ever so little. One idea here is to maximize the amount of money available to the nonprofit community by making sure it goes directly to the providers and not the many channels of funding in state and federal government programs.''

This, Randa says, insures that the nonprofit sector receives 100 percent of the gift.

''Nonprofit organizations have a great deal to give the corporate world,'' he says. ''We are activating the potential within free enterprise of stimulating profits. Lets face it, that's the bottom line. So if philanthropy is going to thrive in this kind of climate, it had better spruce up its act and begin producing profits. We can, and it's through saying, 'Thank you, America.' ''

Randa, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, and a newly formed Committee on Philanthropy in the Massachusetts State House are working on a joint resolution in Massachusetts and are predicting passage by summer. By fall, they expect to have a sufficient statewide corporate and political base to propose a bill in Congress.

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