For a very long time, presidential campaigns have promoted their candidates’ humanitarian cred. Nineteenth-century campaign biographies are full of stories of exemplary personal service and sacrifice—Lincoln as a young army volunteer, for instance, stepping in to protect the life of an elderly Native American at a frontier camp. Americans have always wanted their leaders to be not just strong but generous and good as well.
Never before, though, has an election season focused so much scrutiny on one particular manifestation of such generosity: philanthropic giving. This is, after all, the first presidential election in which both major party candidates can claim their own foundation, each of which has cast its institutional shadow over the campaign.
Though this year is unusual, a focus on candidates’ charitable profiles has been building for some time. Until this year, since 1976 every single Democratic and Republican presidential nominee had released his income-tax returns, allowing the press to poke around in his itemized charitable deductions. Meanwhile, the boundaries between philanthropy and politics have been steadily blurring so that attention directed to one realm is almost necessarily drawn to the other. As wealthy donors have increasingly gravitated toward policy advocacy, they’ve found themselves the target of opposition research of the sort that politicians routinely endure. (The Open Society Foundations, funded by George Soros, were recently hacked, likely by the same Russian cyber-goons that hacked Democratic political organizations.) And as substantial private wealth has become a practical prerequisite to holding public office—in 2013, the median net worth of a member of Congress passed the one-million-dollar mark—the political class and the donor class have converged, as the guest-list of any Davos shindig will attest.
Yet it’s not clear, for all this attention, how much insight the focus on the candidates’ charity has brought us. The scrutiny applied toward the Clinton Foundation and to the Donald J. Trump Foundation has been almost entirely consumed by charges of corruption and malfeasance—territory where the political class is comfortable making judgments. But as David Callahan recently pointed out in Inside Philanthropy, despite its focus on the Clinton Foundation, many in the media still don’t seem to have much of an idea what it actually does, and there has been little effort expended in appraising its programs. (By contrast, the media seems to have a good excuse for not appraising the work of the Trump Foundation, since it lacks any full-time staff and doesn’t seem to do much.) The press has largely ignored the smaller and more traditional Clinton Family Foundation. In fact, even as this presidential campaign has exhibited the inter-mingling of the realms of politics and philanthropy, it has also demonstrated how uncomfortable the public is with engaging the latter on the same terms as the former, as an arena in which active discrimination and comparative judgment is essential. In other words, this presidential election season reveals as much about Americans’ attitudes toward charitable giving as it does about the candidates’.
One reason for this discomfort is the powerful, persistent sense that charity should be considered an entirely private vocation and that what other people give is none of the public’s business. It’s a view that, from the stirrings of modern philanthropy in the 19th century, has been bolstered by ethical and prudential rationales. A cloak of discretion thrown across the gift exchange was thought to encourage Christian humility, while avoiding undue publicity appealed to donors, since an announcement of a major gift usually led to a torrent of subsequent solicitations. On top of this was the suspicion that meddling in others’ charitable affairs was just another effort to undermine the prerogatives of private property. When J. Howard Pew, the conservative oil magnate, was asked why his foundation had never issued any reports to the public, he huffed, “I’m not telling anybody anything. It’s my money, isn’t it?”
Trump has sought to take full advantage of this viewpoint. For one, he has bucked precedent and refused to release his tax returns, prompting some to speculate that he didn’t want to expose his meager charitable contributions. And while he has frequently invoked his philanthropic exploits on the stump, when the media has pressed him on details, he and his staff have taken refuge in the tradition of charitable discretion. The Washington Post has been particularly vigilant, turning over various rocks in the nonprofit sector in search of trails of Trump’s reputed largesse and poring over his foundation’s tax records. Trump stonewalled the inquiry, insisting that he wished his donations to be “private” and that he had preferred not to take “credit” for the funds he has raised on others’ behalf. The treasurer of the Trump Foundation suggested that there were countless instances of Trump’s generosity that had been given off the books because “we want to keep them quiet” to avoid a “feeding frenzy.” And after his son, Eric Trump, claimed that his father gives “millions and millions and millions” to charity, and was asked by the Post to provide some evidence of these contributions, he declined, citing Trump’s desire to remain anonymous. “It's who he is,” the younger Trump said. “It's who he is as a person.”
These protestations haven’t stopped the Post, and they will unlikely deter future spelunkers into the chasm of Trump’s psyche. That’s in part because interrogators have been eroding philanthropists’ claims to privacy and discretion for at least a century. Their claims have become even fiercer in recent decades. Not only has the public increasingly come to insist that they have a right to know where the nation’s wealthiest citizens are directing their giving (and if they are indeed doing so)—a claim backed up by a string of federal laws and regulations that required foundations to issue information on their grants. But many philanthropists are now themselves eschewing the comforts of anonymity, because of the need to leverage their own “reputational capital” to convince their wealthy peers to give as well.
So Americans can expect to continue to be buffeted by information about philanthropists’ giving, including from those who double as politicians. But what will they learn from all that information? Much of the coverage is framed quantitatively. The public is told how much candidates have given and what proportion of their income or personal wealth this represents. (For instance, the public recently learned that Bill and Hillary Clinton gave nearly 10 percent of their income to charity, while Bernie and Jane Sanders gave around 4 percent.)
But these numbers do not necessarily point to any clear conclusions. For decades, the baseline percentage of income given to charity by Americans has hovered around 3 percent. So how to regard deviations from that figure? Both the poor and the rich tend to give a higher percentage of their income to charity than those in the middle range. It’s easy to praise the empathy of the disempowered and underprivileged. But it’s harder to extend such adulation to ultra-high net worth individuals, as they have more disposable income to spare in the first place.
The dominant approach to most quantitative research on American giving is non-normative; a recent book by two leading scholars in the field, for instance, presents 12 case-studies representing a range of giving patterns, with distinct levels, styles, and foci, without making judgments between them. And when statistics on giving do provoke judgment, they often fall into the grooves of pre-existing ideological contests. A decade ago, Arthur Brooks, the current president of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote a book that used survey data to argue that self-identified conservatives donated more to charity, and gave a higher percentage of their incomes to charitable causes, than did liberals. Unsurprisingly, the right crowed over these results, while left-leaning scholars poked holes in the research.
Some of the deepest divides are over the interpretations of religious giving, which has been falling for the last several decades but which still makes up a third of all charitable contributions and is especially concentrated in a number of red states (Utah consistently ranks at the top of the list). In much of the academic and journalistic discourse surrounding philanthropy, giving to religious institutions is relegated to its own cloistered chapter, revealing a conceptual bias toward secular modes of charity.
This was especially clear in the coverage of charitable giving in the last presidential election. During the campaign, Mitt Romney’s tax returns showed that he and his wife had donated nearly 30 percent of their income to charity in 2011, significantly higher than the Obamas (who weighed in at a still-impressive 21.8 percent). The press didn’t seem to know what to make of the figures. Some saw them as evidence of Romney’s exceptional generosity. But others resisted that interpretation, insisting it was only possible, as the Nation declared, “if you ignore where the money actually went.” The magazine discounted the couple’s 10 percent tithe to the Mormon Church and remained resolutely unimpressed by another leading recipient of Romney’s largesse, Brigham Young University. “In all, it is clear that Romney’s donations are about taking care of his own and advancing his personal interests. Relative to his vast wealth, he has given relatively little to programs that assist those truly in need,” the Nation declared. Giving to your house of worship might be considered a charitable contribution for tax purposes, “but that doesn’t mean that giving your church money for a new stained glass window…is charity in the colloquial sense.”
The Nation’s critical assessment was memorable because it was anomalous—in the past, few commentators have been ready to take direct aim at another’s charitable choices. That disinclination points to a paradox at the root of how people tend to think about the philanthropic proclivities of public figures. Traditionally, the public has maintained that charity is a quintessentially American virtue and have expected its leaders to practice it. And yet the assumptions and attitudes that have fed the culture of giving in the United States, stemming from a fiercely held commitment to pluralism, impede judgments about the direction of that giving. Americans have cultivated an ecumenical approach to philanthropy, reflected in the nation’s social mores and legal codes, that’s bent on encouraging more giving as opposed to directing giving toward certain desired channels. In England, by contrast, the legal system has made a greater effort to define the boundaries of legitimate charitable activity.
The discretion granted to givers is a theme that runs through the great philanthropic enterprises of the last century and half. For instance, Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth (1889) is often cited as a clarion call of the “scientific philanthropy” movement. In his writings Carnegie did indeed list various institutions and causes that he deemed appropriate beneficiaries of the responsible steward’s largesse—libraries, museums, schools, and public parks, among others. Yet for all his scorn for “indiscriminate almsgiving,” an ecumenical spirit presided over large sections of the tract. Carnegie, who wasn’t shy about sharing his opinions, pushed back against establishing any sort of hierarchy among philanthropic projects. “It is not expected, neither is it desirable, that there should be general concurrence as to the best possible use of surplus wealth. For different men and different localities there are different uses,” he wrote. The giver’s preferences should reign. “What commends itself most highly to the judgment of the administrator is the best use for him, for his heart should be in the work.” Carnegie made clear his instrumental preference for withholding judgment—tethering philanthropy to individual preference would produce the most fertile philanthropic system.
More than a century later, the same logic governs the terms of the Giving Pledge. Its organizers, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, have pushed their billionaire peers to give half their fortunes to charitable causes, but they have not sought to direct those philanthropists to any particular worthy cause. “Philanthropy is very personal. To us, it doesn’t matter what people give, whether it’s to the culture or to climate, humanity or societal issues,” Melinda Gates explained to the interviewer Charlie Rose in unveiling the Pledge. “It’s what they’re driven by that gets them to give and we just wanted to make sure they are thinking about giving.”
The irony is that, if philanthropic pluralism stems from the belief that giving decisions reflect an individual’s deepest values and commitments, it’s rare for those decisions to be subjected to the same critical scrutiny as, say, a politician's fashion tastes. That reluctance likely stems from a corollary to the instrumental rationale behind philanthropic pluralism: People fear that pushing and prodding givers too strenuously to defend giving choices, or asserting a hierarchy of philanthropic objectives, might dissuade and depress giving. But no one is afraid that if the public criticizes a candidate's blouse, she'll forgo clothes entirely.
Yet there are some signs that this ecumenism is eroding. The effective altruism movement, championed by ethicist Peter Singer and by organizations like GiveWell (for which, full disclosure, I have consulted), have promoted the need to evaluate giving decisions not just within causes (“Which is the best cancer charity?”), but among them, to determine the most good that can be done with one’s dollars.
Even more significantly, the recent surge in mega-philanthropy has attracted more discussion about what sorts of gifts make the most civic sense—and which seem gratuitous or self-indulgent. A series of recent nine-figure gifts to educational institutions like Harvard and Yale, whose endowments are already as large as the GDPs of many small nations, were met in some quarters not with the typical hosannas but with skepticism and even with contempt. Commentators such as Vox’s Dylan Matthews and The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell pointed out the folly, redundancy, and parochialism of directing hundreds of millions to institutions with such bulging coffers. “For the love of God, rich people,” Matthews declared, “stop giving money to Harvard.” Donating to the university was not philanthropy, since it didn’t need the money and catered largely to the wealthy. “If you want to make the world a better place,” he instructed future philanthropists, “your dollars are better spent literally anywhere else.” (He specifically endorsed several charities recommended by GiveWell.)
What was striking about these responses is not that they were critical of mega-philanthropy—there’s a long, populist tradition of such critiques, coming from the right and from the left, converging around a suspicion of the oversized power wielded by the philanthropist. It was the willingness of critics like Matthews to judge a specific gift and the values that sparked it, and to assert that some gifts are better, more thoughtful, and more civically fruitful than others.
It is one of the small consolations of this disheartening presidential campaign that there are the glimmerings of such an approach to philanthropy within the coverage of Donald Trump’s charitable giving. Trump himself inadvertently opened the door to it, as over the decades he has often mentioned AIDS, homeless support, and veterans organizations as the beneficiaries of his giving. These are causes that directly benefit society’s neediest citizens and by invoking them, Trump made a sort of implicit argument about the principles that should animate giving. But when the Post went through tax records from his foundation, and canvassed nonprofits associated with Trump, they discovered that the vast majority of his philanthropy was tied to his business, political, or personal interests. The Post cited significant donations to the ballet school that his daughter Ivanka attended; to Wharton, where he got his MBA; to the private school where his son Eric was enrolled; and to a foundation that assisted down-on-their-luck real-estate brokers.
The Post offered little overt editorializing; it didn’t need to. Next to the grandiose promises of assistance from Trump, the record of his modest contributions over the years and the fact that much of his giving was directed toward the elite institutions from which he or his family benefited spoke plenty. Not just about Donald Trump, and the lack of substance behind many of his public pronouncements, but about the benefits of scrutinizing—and judging—charitable contributions at all.