Thursday, October 20, 2016

Nonprofits and a Toxic Election

It seems that even I can’t resist joining the Election Pundit Cavalcade, although I am small potatoes compared to the hundreds of writers of reputation who have spilled buckets of ink about this astonishing presidential contest.

My entry into the fray is prompted by a recent article (9/29/16)  in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The heading was “Nonprofits Worry about Election’s Impact on Public View of Charity.”  The anxiety is focused on the candidates’ attacks on each other’s foundations- the Clinton Foundation and the Trump Foundation. Will the political charges that each lacks transparency and involves questionable use of funds affect the public’s view of charities in general? Will the media scrutiny, seeking out a “story,”  create a ripple effect and result in negative perceptions of the role of nonprofits overall?

Before I weigh in on those questions, some facts (a bit rare these days). The two foundations are quite different in organization and purpose. The Trump Foundation is classified as a private non-operating foundation, whereas the Clinton Foundation is a public charity. The distinction is that that a public charity derives its support from a variety of sources – such as individuals, corporations, governments and even other foundations  and uses those funds to advance its mission through its own in-house programs. A private foundation on the other hand usually is funded from a single source, a family for instance, and fulfills its charitable purpose by making grants to other organizations.

The Clinton Foundation is very large, with assets in 2014 of $354 million, expenses of $91 million and a staff of 486, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The Trump Foundation had assets of $1 million, expenses of $600,000 and no staff. The Clinton Foundation’s programs are based on defined strategic initiatives (global health for example), whereas the Trump Foundation’s grants have been to various organizations with no unifying purpose. The Tumpies accuse the Clintons of raising money from those who expect access to the Clintons in return (“Pay for Play”), the Clintons point to dodgy Trump Foundation outlays, including one to a charity auction where the Foundation paid for Mrs. Trump’s bid of $20,000 for a six foot tall portrait of her husband, now located in one of the Trump golf clubhouses. 
A few weeks ago the office of the New York State Attorney General Eric Schnedierman, responsible for oversight of nonprofits, ordered the Trump Foundation to stop raising money in New York for lack of certification to do so.  Mr. Trump has regularly boasted of his philanthropy, but without access to his federal tax returns, which he repeatedly refuses to release, it is impossible to ascertain the amounts.  Warren Buffett, clearly a billionaire many times over, in his challenge to Trump’s “smart” avoidance of tax payments whereby he claimed almost a billion dollars in losses in 1995, released his 2015 federal return. There it showed Buffett gave over $3.6 million to charity. The last donation Trump made to his foundation was in 2008.

It’s an election year and charges fly back and forth. I am not sure the fracas about the two foundations necessarily tarnishes the reputation of the work of nonprofits in general, the worry of some in the field. What is more troublesome in my view is the potential damage the tone of this election has done to the outlook of Americans. 

It’s been years, in time and attitude, since JFK declared in his inaugural address in 1961: “ My fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”   The idea of making personal sacrifice for a greater good is the farthest thing away from many voters’ minds. They have been conditioned over the years by politicians’ promises of what they can do for the voter. This year especially, thanks to the drum- beating, hateful narcissism of Trump that glorifies “I” and “Me,”  the taking far outstrips giving.

The work of successful charitable nonprofits is based on the concept of voluntary giving. Donors give of their treasure (and time) to an organization so, in turn, the organization can give back services to the community. One definition of philanthropy is “the desire to promote the welfare of others” (from the Greek word translated as “love of humanity.”)  What I fear is that most people will remember from this campaign the miasma of hate created by Mr. Trump and espoused by many of his supporters.  If misanthropy – the hatred of humankind – the desire to denigrate the welfare of other, a trademark of Trumpian rhetoric becomes the standard, then not only the nonprofit community, but our nation, is in trouble.

Regardless of the election outcome, there will be a bad taste in the mouth of the electorate that will linger for some time.  The remedy for this  damaging aftertaste and any potential  impact on nonprofits is for every organization to focus on its mission and continue to do good work. Tip O’Neill, the legendary Speaker of the House (1977-1987) once said “All Politics is local.” Such may be said about the work of nonprofits. Negative attitudes and opinions about nonprofits created by this toxic national election can be mitigated in time by the good work of charitable institutions at home.
So, to employ the message developed by the British Ministry of Information to buck up the populace during World War II: “ Keep Calm and Carry On” – with philanthropy.

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