News and analysis
September 07, 2012

Where the 2012 Presidential Candidates Stand on Key Nonprofit Issues

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Barack Obama

President of the United States

Mitt Romney

Businessman, former governor of Massachusetts

Nonprofit activities

While living in Chicago, directed the Developing Communities Project, a nonprofit organization that works with churches to aid low-income neighborhoods. Headed Illinois Project Vote, which helped register black and low-income voters in Cook county. Served as a board member of the Joyce Foundation and of the Woods Fund of Chicago and board chair for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a project to improve public schools.

Charitable giving. Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, contributed $172,130 to charity in 2011 and $245,075 in 2010, 22 percent and 14 percent of their adjusted gross income, respectively.

Was chief executive of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Runs the Tyler Charitable Foundation with his wife, Ann. He contributed $9.5-million to the fund from 1999 to 2010 and it had $10-million in assets in 2010 (PDF). Served on the national board of City Year, a nonprofit youth corps, from 1995 to 1999. Served on the board of the Points of Light Foundation, which incorporated the National Volunteer Center—an organization headed for many years by his father, George—from 1995 to 2001.

Charitable giving. Mr. Romney and his wife, Ann, contributed $4-million to charity in 2011, about 29 percent of their adjusted gross income (but claimed a charitable deduction for just $2.25-million). In 2010, they gave almost $3-million, nearly 14 percent of their  income.


Nonprofit issues. Championed and signed into law the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which called for an expansion of AmeriCorps, the national-service program, from 75,000 to 250,000 members by 2017. It also created the Social Innovation Fund, a new grants program to help nonprofits expand effective programs, and funds to help charities recruit and manage volunteers and to provide management training to small nonprofits. Deficit-cutting pressures in Congress have curtailed much of the spending that was envisaged in the legislation.

Created the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, a unit that promotes volunteerism, national service, and innovative approaches to social problems. That office oversaw the White House Council for Community Solutions, an advisory panel of nonprofit leaders and others that issued a final report in June about ways nonprofits and others can collaborate to help young people get educated and find jobs.

Health Care. Drafted a health-care overhaul law that many nonprofits and foundations support and are helping to put into place.

Lobbying. Issued rules limiting the ability of registered lobbyists, including those for nonprofits, to get administration jobs—a stance protested by some advocacy groups.

Poverty. Proposed and won legislation to create the Promise Neighborhoods program, which provides money to nonprofits that work with schools, foundations, businesses, and others to offer an array of services to young people and families in troubled neighborhoods. With a budget of $60-million (smaller than the $150-million that he proposed), the program, modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone project, in New York, is now paying for 20 projects across the country.

Stimulus. Oversaw the effort to enact a $787-billion economic-stimulus law that provided billions of dollars to nonprofits in areas including AmeriCorps, the arts, community health centers, Head Start, housing, Medicaid, and social services.

Taxes. Proposed several times limiting the value of the charitable deduction for households earning more than $250,000 ($200,000 for individuals) as a way to help cut the budget deficit or pay for jobs programs, triggering strong opposition from many charity leaders.


Health care. Oversaw the crafting of a Massachusetts health-care law that is considered a model for the new federal law. It requires most residents to buy insurance and offers subsidies or free coverage to those who can’t afford it.

National service. Along with Democratic Gov. Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania, he led an effort to persuade governors to sign a 2003 letter to Congress and President George W. Bush requesting emergency aid for AmeriCorps, the national-service program, which was then in the midst of a financial crisis. The letter, signed by 43 governors, said a proposed cut in AmeriCorps members  "could seriously affect communities and individuals" who rely on the program for help.

Religious groups. Appointed his wife, Ann Romney, to serve as an unpaid liaison to the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which was set up to help funnel federal aid to religious organizations for social services.

Taxes and charitable-giving incentives

Would raise taxes on wealthy people as a way to help cut the budget deficit. Would end the Bush-era tax cuts for households with incomes above $250,000 ($200,000 for individuals)

Would limit the value of itemized deductions, including those for charitable giving, for wealthy people. Would require people making more than $1-million to pay at least 30 percent in taxes but without “disadvantaging individuals who make large charitable contributions.” Would maintain the estate tax after it is scheduled to expire at the end of this year and increase both the tax rate and the amount that is taxed from current levels.

Would cut federal income-tax rates by 20 percent, bringing the top rate down from 35 percent to 28 percent. Would limit tax deductions and exemptions for high-income people. Would work with Congress to determine how to set those limits, but "we want to maintain provisions that encourage housing, charitable contributions, and health care."

Said one option could be to give everyone a $17,000 deduction, with taxpayers using their charitable deduction or other tax breaks to "fill that bucket." He added the number could be smaller for higher-income people. Expanded on that at the first presidential debate by saying, "Make up a number, $25,000, $50,000. Anybody can have deductions up to that amount. And then that number disappears for high-income people." Added that the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan could be another model. That plan calls for replacing the charitable deduction with a tax credit that would be available to people who donated a certain percentage of their income.


Would end the estate tax.

Government spending

Favors trimming federal spending to cut the budget deficit but says it must be balanced by tax increases for the wealthy—an idea he has been unable to sell to Congressional Republicans. Signed a law in 2011 that called for $917-billion in spending cuts over 10 years and set up a Congressional “super committee” to propose $1.2-trillion in additional deficit-cutting measures. Because that committee failed to come up with the required savings, a package of across-the-board spending cuts—half from defense programs and half from other spending—is scheduled to take effect in January 2013.

Opposes Mr. Romney's plan to turn Medicaid money over to the states, saying at the first presidential debate that it would cut spending by 30 percent on "the primary program we help for seniors who are in nursing homes, for kids who are with disabilities."

Would cut non-security discretionary spending by 5 percent across the board and would limit federal spending to 20 percent of gross domestic product by 2016. Budget would be cut by $500-billion a year in 2016, assuming "robust economic recovery." Would turn money for federal job-retraining programs into block-grant programs, providing lump sums to states. Would turn Medicaid into a block-grant program and cap spending, with the budget increasing each year by the consumer price index plus 1 percent.

"For every government-spending proposal, I will ask the following question: 'Is this program so important that it is worth borrowing more money from China to pay for it?'”

Federal aid to abortion providers

Opposes efforts by anti-abortion advocates to end federal spending on Planned Parenthood, even for family planning and other non-abortion services. Rescinded the “Mexico City Policy” barring nonprofits that receive U.S. government aid from performing or promoting abortion services in other countries.

Would end federal spending on any group like Planned Parenthood that "primarily performs abortions or offers abortion-related services." The ban would cover Title X family-planning money. Refused to sign a "pro-life pledge" drafted by the Susan B. Anthony List, however, because it called for an end to federal spending on any group with "affiliates that perform or fund abortion." Said that was "overly broad" since it would affect "thousands of hospitals across America."

Would reinstate the "Mexico City Policy" barring nonprofits that receive U.S. government aid from performing or promoting abortion services in other countries. Would end U.S. spending on any United Nations or other foreign-assistance program that promotes or performs abortions.

Support for arts and culture

Proposed slight increases in spending on the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities in his 2013 budget, although they would still be getting less than when Mr. Obama entered Office. Proposed flat spending for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Would seek “deep reductions” or end federal spending for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Public Broadcasting System. Would tell PBS to seek advertising in place of government subsidies, saying: “We’re not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird is going to have advertisements.”

Repeated at the first presidential debate that he would "stop the subsidy to PBS."

Foreign aid

Supports foreign aid because it’s “the right thing to do” for a wealthy country and good for national security since “preventing a famine that results in a huge number of refugees” can prevent military conflict. Proposed to increase spending on international aid over all by 2 percent in 2013—including a big increase to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria—but cut in some areas, including Pepfar (the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief).

Said he could not commit to spending as much money on Pepfar  (the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) as President George W. Bush did.  “I’m very reluctant to borrow lots more money to be able to do wonderful things, if those things can be done by people making charitable contributions or by other countries that are wealthy.”

Said the U.S. is spending “more in foreign aid than we ought to be spending” and it doesn’t make sense to “ borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid. We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people that are taking that humanitarian aid today.”

National service

Has resisted efforts by House Republicans to kill the Corporation for National and Community Service but proposed increasing the agency’s budget by just 1.3 percent in 2013 and eliminating two of its programs, one to help charities recruit and manage volunteers and the other to offer management training to smaller charities.

As governor, supported increased federal spending on AmeriCorps  when it was going through a fiscal crisis.

At a campaign event, said that City Year was financed “exclusively through charitable contributions” when he was on the board (the program actually was receiving AmeriCorps money at that time) and that he believed “we should keep this as a privately funded, charitably funded effort.” Said as governor he advocated the philosophy that “people should do these things on their own rather than having us tax them to give to the charities of our choice.”


Proposed flat or increased spending in 2013 on many safety-net programs, including child care, community-health centers, Head Start, housing, Promise Neighborhoods, and social services. However, would cut sharply Community Services Block Grants, which provide money to more than 1,000 community-action groups that manage antipoverty projects. The new health-care law will expand the number of people eligible for Medicaid, the government insurance plan for poor people.

Said the country “cannot balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable” or “ask the poor, the sick, or those with disabilities to sacrifice even more or ask the middle class to pay more, just so we can offer massive new tax cuts to those who’ve been blessed with the most."

Said the free-enterprise system "has helped lift more people out of poverty across the globe than any government program."

“If we’re going to help lift our brothers and sisters out of poverty, we must restore our economy and reduce the debt.” Said the government rightfully provides a safety net, but he would ensure the money goes to those most in need, for example through “means testing” (offering lower benefits to people with bigger incomes). Would support the work of faith-based organizations that are helping people in need.

Vice-presidential candidates

Joe Biden, former U.S. Senator from Delaware

Charitable giving. Mr. Biden and his wife, Jill, contributed $5,540 to charity in 2011, or about 1.5 percent of their adjusted gross income. In 2010, they gave $5,350, or about 1.4 percent of income.

Rep. Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin

As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he drafted budgets in 2011 and 2012 that would slash federal spending and overhaul safety-net programs like Medicaid and food stamps. Mr. Romney has expressed support for those budgets.

Charitable giving. Mr. Ryan and his wife, Janna, contributed $12,991 to charity in 2011, about 4 percent of their adjusted gross income. In 2010, they gave $2,600, or 1.2 percent of income.

Spouse’s charitable activities

Michelle Obama was founding executive director of the Chicago office of Public Allies, a charity that receives federal money through AmeriCorps and trains people to work in public service. Early in her tenure as first lady, she championed volunteerism and national service and the Social Innovation Fund. More recently, she has turned her attention to Joining Forces, a program she started with Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife, that works to help military families, and Let’s Move, a program she started to fight childhood obesity. Nonprofits and foundations are helping to promote both programs.

Ann Romney served on the board of the Greater New England Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society from 2004 to 2010 (though ended her active role in 2008 when her husband decided to run for president). Served on the boards of the Massachusetts Children's Trust Fund (2004 to 2007); Families First Parenting Programs (1998 to 2003), and United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley (1996 to 2009; was co-chair of the faith and action committee). Was a member of the U.S. advisory board of Right to Play, formerly Olympic Aid, and hosted its inaugural meeting in 2004; still an adviser to the organization. Was a volunteer instructor at Mother Caroline Academy and Education Center, a school for girls from low-income families (dates unavailable).

Photos: Barack Obama by Dennis Brack/Getty Images, Mitt Romney by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

More coverage: See the latest news about the nonprofit world and the 2012 campaign.

Maria Di Mento contributed to this report.

Send an e-mail to Suzanne Perry.