Let’s do a reality check on the charitable giving of the two major presidential candidates in the hope of showing the reason that, to use my favorite Twitter hashtag, #factsmatter.
First, let’s look at generosity measured as a share of wealth.
Giving money away is easy. Just write a check, sign a credit card voucher or, if you have assets, donate your home or appreciated stock.
But effecting change is hard, something I know from co-authoring with my wife, Jennifer Leonard, the Columbia Journalism Review’s 1983 guide for journalists on covering nonprofits, and training the original Chronicle of Philanthropy news staff. And being married for 34 years to the president of a very successful charitable endowment has given me a very close look at what it takes to improve the lives of poor children and awareness of concentrated poverty where I live in Rochester, New York.
So let’s take the measure of Clinton and Trump’s charitable actions.
Since 2001, Trump has given $3.8 million to charities, the very limited public record on his giving shows. That includes a $1 million gift to a veterans’ charity as part of his campaign to win votes.
All of the $1.2 million the Donald J. Trump Charitable Foundation had at the end of 2014 came from vendors who do business with Trump. The foundation tax returns show only minor gifts by Trump since 2001 and none since 2008 when he gave $30,000, pocket change for someone who claims to be worth $10 billion.
Trump claims that over his lifetime he has given $102 million to charities, but his refusal to release any tax returns (or even proof that he is under audit) makes it impossible to verify that figure.
We do know that Trump has said he gave an easement that would bar development forever of land at his Palos Verdes, California, golf resort. Trump has indicated he took a $26 million charitable deduction, equal to almost the $27 million he paid for the entire site with its golf course and buildings. The site cannot be developed because of shifting earth and landslides, so why it would quality for any charitable deduction is unclear. The land in question is used as a driving range for the Trump golf course and resort, rather than as open space.
Since 2001 the Clintons have given $23.2 million to charity, their income tax returns reveal. The Clintons have released 39 consecutive years of tax returns.
Like Trump, the Clintons give primarily to a foundation bearing the family name, the Clinton Family Foundation.
Trump claims he is worth more than $10 billion. That means his verified gifts since 2001 come to less than four one-hundredths of 1 percent of his claimed wealth. Even if we accept his claim of $102 million—and count it as all being donated since 2001—his total giving would be just 1 percent of his claimed net worth.
The Clintons are worth no more than $62 million, their financial disclosure forms show. Their charitable donations since 2001 come to at least 37.6 percent of their maximum net worth.
This means that, relative to wealth, the Clintons have given at a rate a thousand times Trump’s verifiable charitable giving. Even accepting Trump’s claim that his giving is much larger than the public record shows, the Clintons gave at more than 37 times Trump’s rate.
The Clintons’ tax returns show that they tithe, giving away a tenth of their income, mostly, like Trump, to foundations bearing the family name.
Now what about the uses of these known charitable gifts? Giving money away is easy, while making a measurable difference is hard.
The Trump Foundation shows mostly small gifts, from $1,000 to $25,000. The three largest grants it made in 2014, its latest tax filing shows, all had an element of self-interest.
The largest grant, $100,000, went to Citizens United Foundation, which promotes anonymous donations to influence elections.
The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of West Palm Beach was next at $50,000. It pays Trump to host fundraisers at the Trump-owned National Doral Miami, a luxury hotel, and charity golf tournaments on the Doral’s links.
The Trump foundation also gave $50,000 to Columbia Grammar and Prep School in Manhattan, a private school whose students include Barron, the candidate’s youngest child.
Those three grants come to more than a third of the Trump Foundation’s 2014 grants, which totaled $591,450, a piddling sum for the self-described 10 billion-dollar man.
The self-interested nature of those grants fits with another pattern. The Trump foundation has made eight improper gifts, some of which are flatly illegal, reporting by David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post and others shows.
These include a $25,000 political donation—a no-no for any charity—to help Pam Bondi win a second term as Florida attorney general. The Trump foundation improperly reported the gift on its annual tax filing, then offered a convoluted story about confusing the names of a Kansas and California charity with Bondi’s campaign group, whose treasurer said in 2013 it had no problem with accepting a campaign donation from the Trump charitable foundation. Trump says he paid a $2,500 penalty for the illegal campaign donation and donated $25,000 as a replacement of the money to his foundation.
The Trump foundation also paid off personal and business obligations of Trump, The Washington Post reported this week. That is known as self-dealing, which is also an illegal use of charitable funds. These include buying two paintings of himself for $30,000 and shelling out $258,000 to settle lawsuits.
And the Clinton Family Foundation and the related Clinton Global Initiative? The foundation is a grantmaker, while the initiative facilitates action by others.
At least 11 million people are breathing as this is written because of the Clintons’ charitable endeavors, which increased the number of poor people overseas getting life-sustaining drugs to suppress HIV from about 250,000 to nearly 12 million.
Critics have questioned donations by others. Trump says Clinton engaged in pay-for-play when she was secretary of state, but has offered no proof, just assertions, of anything improper. The issue has received extensive news coverage, but no smoking gun has been found.
For example, a front-page Wall Street Journal story this week examined how the fragrance industry paid Bill Clinton to give a speech and also gave money to the global initiative’s Haiti office to help develop lime orchards in impoverished Haiti to ensure an abundant supply of citrus juice used for making nice scents. So some poor Haitians were better off because they had a buyer for their fruit.
Charity watchdogs groups have also examined the candidates’ foundations.
Charity Navigator lists Trump’s foundation as unrated.
Charity Navigator gives the Clinton Foundation a rating of 94.74 on a scale of 100.
Now let’s look at compliance and transparency.
There is no audited financial statement at the Trump websites for the Trump Foundation or any of the charity watchdogs.
The Clinton Foundation’s audited financial statements and amendments are all online at its website.
In addition, responding to criticism, the Clintons ordered a forensic audit. That means instead of sampling accounts, as in a normal audit, an intense and aggressive hunt was made to find anything wrong. Nothing but minor matter were amiss.
Because some cynics are going to ask, I’ll disclose that my wife and I, who depend on her salary and my writing business for more than 99 percent of our income, gave 25 percent of what we earned last year to charities.
I expect to now hear from Trump fans who believe he is what he says he is, an ardent philanthropist running against “crooked Hillary.”
That’s not what the facts show. What they show is a lot of unverified claims and countervailing facts on Trump’s side and transparency and effective action on Clinton’s.
But the facts are what they are. You can download and examine the 990s of the Clinton and Trump charities for free by registering at guidestar.org.
Again, facts matter.