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Politicians & Philanthropy: More Than Lip Service?

February 19, 2012

How does the current crop of candidates vying for the Republican Party’s Presidential nomination rank when it comes to philanthropic giving? Are they as charitable as their carefully crafted campaign trail speeches would have us believe? Or is philanthropy something that is better preached and not practiced?

Recently released 2010 tax records highlight the range of giving trends among the Republican pack and offer an interesting look into the lives of the candidates.

The typical American donates 2% of his/her income to charitable organizations and that amount increases as incomes increase. According to data from the IRS and Congressional Budget Office, people earning $500,000 of more per year give 3.4% of their earnings to charity and people earning greater than $10 million donate 6.5%.

Here’s how the Republican Presidential hopefuls stack up:

Mitt Romney

In 2010 Mitt Romney donated  $2.9 million, or 13.8% of his $21 million income, to charity. The majority of his philanthropic contributions ($1.5 million) went to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the form of the tithes required of all Mormons in good standing. The remaining $1.4 million was given to other charities mainly through Romney’s foundation known as the Tyler Charitable Foundation. From 2002 to 2009 nearly 79% of the foundation’s giving was to the Mormon Church, or for Mormon missionary work, upkeep of church buildings, and to Brigham Young University, the church-run college in Utah where Romney earned his undergraduate degree. Other 2010 beneficiaries included the Friends of George W. Bush Library, the Center for Treatment of Pediatric MS, U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation, Harvard Business School, and Homes for Our Troops.

Rick Santorum

In 2010 Rick Santorum donated $16,744, or 1.8% or his $930,227 income, to charity. Santorum’s giving is lower than that of others with similar income levels and is odd given the fact that when he served as a Senator from Pennsylvania he championed non-profits and charitable organizations. He even sponsored the CARE Act to promote interests of charities and provide incentives for Americans to donate.

Upon closer examination of Santorum’s philanthropic giving, it turns out that there are serious questions about a charity organization he started in 2001. Operation Good Neighbor was founded in order to help “break the cycle of poverty that sours the lives of too many men, women and children in our nation.” The organization collected at least $2.3 million in contributions from 2001 until it dissolved in 2007, but spent only 45% of the total revenue on beneficiaries. The majority of the money collected went to fundraising, office space, and personnel costs. An investigation revealed that some of the “administrative” expenses of Santorum’s charity included golf outings and unexplained travel. In 2005 alone, the group spent more than $118,000 on three golfing fundraisers. The events cost the group more than they raised and further revelations showed that Santorum’s campaign staffers ran the charity. The “administrative” spending far surpassed industry best practices of 35% and means that Santorum’s charity spent more on itself than it did on the people it was founded to help.

Newt Gingrich

In 2010 Newt Gingrich donated $80,600, or 2.6% of his $3.1 million income, to charity. The only benefactor named in Gingrich’s 2010 tax documents was the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington which received $9,540, and it in turn paid Mr. Gingrich’s wife Callista $5,918 (she is a member of the choir).

In addition to the giving reported on his personal tax statements, Newt Gingrich offers charitable giving through the Gingrich Foundation which is largely funded from Gingrich Holdings, an umbrella company for a collection of lucrative media and consulting enterprises Gingrich built after leaving government in the 1990’s. The foundation received $152,609 in contributions in 2010 and made grants to 14 organizations totaling $120,000. This is a very small amount of giving considering the fact that Renewing American Leadership, a right-wing Christian non-profit with heavy ties to Gingrich, spent nearly double that amount on direct mailings alone in 2009. Among the recipients were Luther College ($30,000) and the National Shrine ($20,000). Smaller amounts were awarded to the Mount Vernon Association, the Washington National Opera and the Atlanta Ballet.

As House Speaker in the 1990's, Gingrich made philanthropy a centerpiece of his revolution against “Big Government.” He widely proclaimed that charities should be used to replace welfare programs. Gingrich also lost his former position as Speaker of the House and his seat in Congress because of his questionable actions in a scheme to funnel tax-deductible donations through a network of six charitable organizations he created to the benefit of Republican causes.

Ron Paul

Ron Paul has not released his tax returns.

Paul sticks largely to his libertarian ideology and aspires to a system of radically limited government where individuals, not the state, are responsible for caring for the most needy. Paul frequently tells voters how he offered medical care at reduced prices to those unable to pay when he was working as a doctor. He also speaks of donating money to an informal fund established to help pay the costs of cancer treatment for a longtime staffer who died with more than $400,000 in unpaid medical bills.

While Paul favors the idea of a “generous society,” there is little evidence that he regularly practices what he preaches in philanthropy.

And in the interest of being fare and balanced… how do the Republican Presidential hopefuls compare to the current Commander in Chief?

President Obama

In 2010 President Obama donated $241,400, or 14.2% of his $1.7 million income, to charity. President Obama’s philanthropic giving has increased in direct relation over the years with his increased income and political ascent. From 2000 – 2004 Obama donated less than 1% of his income to charity. This increased dramatically from 2005-2006 during which time he donated 5% of his income to philanthropic organizations and it has continued to increase reaching the 14.2% that was reported in 2010.

Albert Einstein said, “The value of a man resides in what he gives and not what he is capable of receiving.” What does that say about the men currently vying to be President of the United States?