It’s not your imagination: Charity has become a focal point of the 2016 presidential election.
Unfortunately for nonprofits, that probably isn’t a good thing, experts say.
Discussion about the candidates’ charity work has been largely negative, raising concerns that the campaign rhetoric will do lasting damage to public perceptions about charities.
Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, worries that this election will "create the impression that nonprofits and foundations are places of scandal and conflicts of interest, which I don’t think is, in fact, generally true."
Both candidates have been accused of excessive secrecy, and investigative journalists have found unusually rich fodder to explore in Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s charitable enterprises, which must file publicly available tax documents.
The result: a level of interest in the major party candidates’ philanthropic affiliations that is unprecedented, experts say. There have been waves of scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation by political opponents and others who allege donations bought special access to the Clintons and their staffers, including while Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state. Meanwhile, a Washington Post reporter has spent months trying to track down whether Donald Trump actually made the donations he claimed through his Donald J. Trump Foundation, chronicling the reporting process via social media.
Charity made its way into the first general election debate Monday when Ms. Clinton said that one possible reason Mr. Trump refuses to release his tax returns is because "maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be."
Big Demand for Information
GuideStar, the charity-information nonprofit, has been flooded with media requests about the Trump and Clinton foundations, according to Jackie Enterline, the organization’s media and outreach manager. This year, those institutions have been the most asked about and searched for in the GuideStar database. There have been more than 26,800 unique page views of the Clinton Foundation profile and more than 10,500 unique page views to the Donald J. Trump Foundation profile. In response to the curiosity, chief executive Jacob Harold created a special report analyzing the differences between the institutions — like the fact that the Clinton Foundation is a public charity and the Trump Foundation is a private foundation.
The attention also spurred the Council on Foundations, a national membership organization, to develop and distribute guidelines to help foundations navigate laws that relate to foundation-affiliated people running for public office.
What sparked all the attention this election season? For one thing, the 2016 presidential candidates have much more robust charitable records than candidates in previous elections. Most people who aspire to be president "don’t have an organization that can get dissected," says Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch.
Interest in the Clintons’ operating foundation may stem from its highly public nature, says Brian Mittendorf, a professor of accounting at Ohio State University who specializes in nonprofits. Concerns about potential conflicts date back to at least 2008, when Ms. Clinton became secretary of state. The foundation signed an agreement governing its activities, so the institution was "already in the public sphere" well before Ms. Clinton secured the Democratic Party nomination for president, Mr. Mittendorf says.
Interest in the Trump Foundation, on the other hand, may stem from Mr. Trump’s efforts to call attention to it. Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold started looking into the institution in January after Mr. Trump skipped a Republican primary debate to hold a fundraising event for veterans charities during a campaign stop in Iowa. After the foundation declined to provide details on the gifts, Mr. Fahrenthold started asking veterans charities directly for information — and soon moved on to inquiring about other donations Mr. Trump claimed to have made.
"He’s somebody who has made the appearance of philanthropy a big part of his public persona," Mr. Fahrenthold told The Chronicle. "He brought charity to the middle of his campaign with that Iowa fundraiser. I don’t think anyone thought at the beginning that Trump’s charity would turn into such a big story."
The scrutiny about the candidates’ involvement in charity work may also reflect national anxiety about the role of money in politics, hypothesizes Megan Tompkins-Stange, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Michigan and author of Policy Patrons, a book about how foundations have influenced education policy. She notes that this is one of the first presidential elections since the Supreme Court ruled in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that institutions have the same rights as individuals to give money to political causes.
"People are getting more critical about outsiders’ role in influencing policy," Ms. Tompkins-Stange says. "It’s time to examine the role of money in politics through foundations. Does it need to be more scrutinized by the public? Do we really want to have private entities having that much power over the public good?"
Council on Foundation leaders report they have not heard many concerns from member institutions about blow-back from intense scrutiny of Ms. Clinton’s and Mr. Trump’s charitable activities this election.
Similarly, Mr. Mittendorf hopes negative language used about foundations this election season "reflects more the discourse about politics than it does views of charities," he says.
But widespread scrutiny of the Clinton and Trump foundations has revealed some patterns that do concern charity leaders and observers. Over all, it seems that "people don’t understand charities," Mr. Borochoff says. The differences that distinguish the institutions — in size, scope, and mission — seem lost on the public and many reporters. The Clinton Foundation is much bigger and more complex, with assets of $354 million, expenses of more than $91 million and 486 staff members in 2014. That same year, the Trump Foundation had assets of $1 million, expenses of nearly $600,000, and no employees. The Clinton Foundation makes strategic investments in programs whose progress it measures, while the Trump Foundation has provided grants to a wide range of unrelated organizations.
Adds Mr. Mittendorf, "A lot of people view them as somewhat equivalent, but it’s so different what they do."
Indeed, there has not been much attention paid to the outcomes of the two foundations’ work, a phenomenon recently explored in an Atlantic magazine article written by Benjamin Soskis, a fellow at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy, and Policy at George Mason University.
"We’ve tended to judge based on how much did they give, what percentage of income did they give, what do their tax returns show?" Mr. Buchanan says. "My optimistic hope is that we can start to turn the questions more toward the effectiveness of their philanthropic efforts, which probably is in some ways relevant to judging someone’s leadership ability."