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Catholic Worker altruism isn't deductible

The charity won't register with the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt nonprofit. Donors say they don't mind.

March 25, 2007|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

Ted Von der Ahe walks past clusters of shopping carts to reach the well-scrubbed building where he works with food, the commodity that made the Vons grocery heir rich.

But these shopping carts are heaped with the ragged belongings of the homeless, and the food is free. Von der Ahe dishes it up as a part-time volunteer for the Los Angeles Catholic Worker soup kitchen on skid row.

"There is a beautiful focus here on helping the poor," said Von der Ahe, 57, who was cleaning the kitchen's ancient stove after a lunch for hundreds of street people.

The former priest's labors carry on a family tradition of charity, although with an organization that does not qualify for donations from the Von der Ahe Foundation.

That's because the Catholic Worker is the rare charity that refuses, on philosophical grounds, to register with the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt nonprofit. The stance dates back seven decades to founder Dorothy Day's admonition to keep the federal government at arm's length.

By toiling outside the system, the Los Angeles Catholic Worker denies itself access to institutional funding -- foundation stipends, government grants, United Way dollars -- that can be the life's blood for many charities. Contributions to the Catholic Worker are not tax-deductible, even though it feeds and shelters the neediest of the needy and provides them with medical and dental care.

To get by, the tiny communal group -- it has just nine full-time members -- depends on the likes of Von der Ahe and a makeshift network of no-strings-attached altruism. Week to week, the Catholic Worker appears to start from scratch, with gifts of greens from a downtown vegetable wholesaler, loaves of day-old bread from neighborhood stores, and cash from a small but loyal base of benefactors.

Actor Martin Sheen, one of its most generous supporters, recently sent $10,000. "They're my heroes," he said.

Catherine Morris, who has run the 6th Street kitchen with her husband since the early 1970s, said typical donations are $25 or $50, and most come from a mailing list of about 7,500 people who receive the bimonthly Catholic Worker newspaper.

"We have this idea in the back of our head that money corrupts," said Morris, 72, a former nun who has a wide and tireless smile. She said the group collects about $200,000 a year. "It seems the first thing that money goes to is salaries, and we have no salaries."

Later, after the lunch bustle, Morris was sweeping the kitchen's garden patio, where a middle-aged man paced between the palms and tipu trees, engaged in a loud conversation with himself. On the street beyond, spectral figures nudged their piled-high shopping carts along the curb or dozed on the urine-stained sidewalk.

"The money we don't get because of the tax thing is irrelevant," Morris said.

Her husband, Jeff Dietrich, agreed. "We don't want the federal government's permission to do this," said Dietrich, a 61-year-old with a robust mustache.

"Jesus really didn't have anything to do with the state, and he wanted people to take care of each other."

The roughly 135 Catholic Worker communities in the United States are independent of one another and have no central organization or official relationship with the church hierarchy. Almost anyone can launch a Catholic Worker group, and not all of the communities last, members say.

For practical reasons, some communities have signed up with the government as 501(c)(3) nonprofits, meaning that they file tax returns, have boards of directors and must comply with all the other rules the government imposes on public charities.

The Night on the Streets Catholic Worker in Berkeley filled out its IRS paperwork to satisfy an Alameda County food bank.

"It's the only way they'll let us get access to their food," said Catholic Worker coordinator J.C. Orton.

In Santa Ana, the Catholic Worker has tried to compromise on the IRS quandary: It has created an affiliated charity that files a tax return to mollify a food bank.

"The business of food at my level is apolitical," said Dwight Smith, who heads the Santa Ana group with his wife, Leia.

The Los Angeles Catholic Worker tenders no IRS forms of any kind. It does pay property taxes, because founder Day felt local governments delivered crucial services, Dietrich said.

Charity watchdogs say it's always best for philanthropic organizations to go though the IRS process. They say the tax exemption inevitably brings in more donations, and the regimen of documentation helps ensure that the funds are not misspent.

"Organizations need to have some oversight and checks and balances," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. "People can turn bad."

But longtime donors such as Pat Heffron, a physician who was washing food carts at the Los Angeles kitchen the other day, say they have no qualms about giving to the Catholic Worker.

"I don't donate just to deduct it off my taxes," said Heffron, 61. "It's what the gospels are calling on us to do."

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