April 18, 2008

Red Tape Cut for In-kind Donations

Charity gifts no longer face year long delay in crossing border

By Mariana Martínez

At the end of last year the Thousand Oaks Rotary Club in California decided to donate an expensive piece of equipment to the Castro-Limon Foundation in Tijuana, a non-profit working to take care of children and families battling cancer.

But the medical equipment, worth over 25 thousand dollars, spent eight months in a Mexican Customs warehouse in Tijuana before being allowed to cross the border, in what is a common experience told by many donors from the US that wish to give to Mexican non-profits.

Amy Carstensen, Senior Program Officer International Community Foundation in Sorrento Valley California, said the problem with lengthy paperwork and delays at the border have serious consequences.

“We would have to turn away donations quite frequently because the whole process was mystical, difficult and unclear…Stuff would often not cross or get lost in who knows what warehouse…you had to file papers and hope there wouldn’t be a mistake when going to Mexico City.”

The first expedited importation of in kind donations, was made by a US donor who gave 17 wheelchairs to Tijuana Social Services Agencies. From left to right, Congressman Carlos Torres, Baja California governor, José Guadalupe Osuna Millán and the first lady and Tijuana mayor Jorge Ramos.

But the Customs law in Mexico has recently been changed in hopes to expedite the importation process of in-kind donations coming from foreign benefactors to help Mexican non-profits and civil-organizations.

The initiative was championed by congressional representative Carlos Torres, and it benefits authorized non-profits across the country, especially those non-profits working along the border region.

“When I interviewed representatives of the philanthropic sector I found frustration and rage because donations had such a hard time getting to those in need, so I set out to make a difference and streamline the in kind donation to our country”, said Torres.

Until recently, non-profits hoping to receive an in-kind donation from outside the country had to fill out an enormous amount of paperwork that would then be sent to Mexico City to be processed.

The paperwork could be delayed up to eight months or even a year, while sometimes never arriving to its destiny.

But with the law change the process can be done via a website, where authorized non-profits can easily see what products are admitted for importation and immediately correct any errors in the needed forms.

In this first stage of the law change there are 220 non-profits already signed up to receive in kind donations by the creation of an electronic signature to validate their identity.

The federal government is offering workshops so that non-profits can learn how the system works and International Community Foundation is work-ing on a guide for in-kind-donations that hopes to distribute in the Mexican Consulate network throughout the United States.

Jesús Rojas Ibáñez, Tax and Costumes Administration official said this new faster paperwork is a commitment to simplify and make the process more efficient.

“But this in no way means we will not verify the information or check the merchandize, we are going to keep a close eye on people that might want to take advantage of the donated goods for business purposes”, added Ibáñez.

A time to heal and a time to help

The governmental gridlock on donations in Mexico has to do with a long history of suspicion between non-profits and the government.

Jorge Villalobos Grzbowicz, is the executive president of the Mexican Center for Philanthropy, representing 600 donors, including 100 businesses, 150 individuals and 450 non-profits.

Villalobos considers that unfortunately, Mexico has a long way to go in the growth of philanthropy, and there is still a lot of suspicion between tax and customs authorities and registered non-profits.

“Shamefully, in Mexico we have only 5 thousand and 700 registered non-profits while the US in comparison has 2.5 million,” he explained, “we still have a long way to go to strengthen the social responsibility in this country, but this can not be achieved with out government stimuli.”

Villalobos added now, “it is our responsibility to become a more transparent sector, so we are now promoting auto regulation, including promoting that more philanthropic groups become registered donors and teaching Mexican business people to live up to their social responsibility.”

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