In American presidential elections, there’s no such thing as a non-issue. Every facet of a candidate’s life is examined under the magnifying lens of a national election – and their philanthropy is no exception. This cycle, a handful of candidates’ family foundations, donor advised funds and public-private partnerships have been scrutinized intensely for signs of self-dealing, inefficacy and hypocrisy in articles from Politico to The Washington Post to the Daily Beast.
It’s a good thing that journalists are covering the philanthropy of candidates for public office. A politician’s charitable practices can serve as one important means to predict their priorities if elected to office. And it’s a cause for concern when candidates’ philanthropy seems to contradict their positions on hot-button issues or to exist purely to curry favor, or when there are signs of tax-avoidance.
But as journalists on the presidential campaign pore over tax returns and crank out stories, they shouldn’t lose sight of the forest for the trees: Whatever the vehicle for charitable giving, whatever the issue of choice, the philanthropy of presidential candidates – like all philanthropy – need to be judged primarily by its impact, especially improving life opportunities for communities most in need.
This basic idea can get lost in the weedy minutiae of elections journalism. “What might be the tax benefit of this gift,” is a valid and important question to ask; but it loses any real meaning if it’s not paired with, “How does this gift change lives for the better?” And if the answer to the second question is a clunking “not much at all,” then it doesn’t matter much how selfless the charity was.
In order to truly assess the virtue of presidential hopefuls’ philanthropy, journalists – and, for that matter, voters themselves – can these six guiding questions:
We should work to build a philanthropic sector that serves the public good and is responsive to people and communities with the least wealth, power and opportunity – a philanthropic sector that creates a more fair, just and democratic society and provides voice and value to those most in need. And our politicians can and should lead the way, not just by supporting public policy that encourages more just and more generous philanthropy, but by their personal example. It’s safe to say we’ll see many more headlines this year about presidential politics and philanthropy; here’s hoping the authors ask the right questions.
Ryan Schlegel is research and policy associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP on Twitter.