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Charitable giving reveals much about a candidate’s values and character

REUTERS/Scott Morgan
Trump’s charitable gifts fail to live up to his rhetoric, time and again.

Billionaire Warren Buffett has joined the chorus of those calling for Donald Trump to release his tax returns. Buffett even offered the author of “The Art of the Deal” a deal of his own: If Trump releases his returns, so will Buffett. “Anytime, anywhere,” Buffett told a crowd in Omaha last week. “I’ll bring my return, he’ll bring his.” As of this writing, however, Donald Trump remains the first presidential candidate in roughly four decades not to release his tax returns.

Adam Copeland

When Mitt Romney finally released his tax returns late in the 2012 campaign, Romney was pilloried for his effective tax rate below 20 percent. But it was another figure buried in Romney’s returns that captured my interest: In 2011 Romney and his wife, Ann, gave 29.4 percent of their income to charity.

Charitable giving reveals much about a candidate’s values and character. Seeking to serve in elected office should raise questions about how candidates previously have served the public good, even with their checkbooks.

The Obamas’ record

In 2011, President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama gave away 21.8 percent of their income to charitable causes. Since 2010, their charitable giving has hovered around 15 percent of their income, though before the White House campaign — and prior to Obama’s books becoming best-sellers — their giving rate was much lower (1.2 percent in 2004, 1.4 percent in 2003, 0.4 percent in 2002). So, we’re left to wonder if it was making millions in royalties, or planning to run for president, that so positively affected the Obamas’ charitable giving.

Many a candidate for elected office has been embarrassed by paltry giving. Then Sen. Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, claimed only $995 in charitable gifts in 2007, or 0.3 percent of their combined income. Compared to the Bidens, Ted Cruz’s contributions of about 1 percent from 2006 to 2010 looks significant. But for Cruz, an evangelical who has called himself a “Christian first, American second,” that was 9 percent short of a tithe. That discrepancy was duly noted in attack ads prior to the Iowa caucuses.

Serving in elected office is a high and worthy calling that, I’m afraid, is increasingly unappealing to sane humans. Who would want to submit oneself to the endless town halls, the grueling schedule, the constant fundraising, and the peculiar experience of having perfect strangers write about your tax returns and charitable giving?

Given these circumstances, it’s tempting to skirt the topic this election cycle. We call them “personal” tax returns, after all. Many Christians, when declining to discuss their offering with other church members — or even with their pastor — describe their contributions as “between me and God.”

WaPo’s numbers are — well, un-huge

And yet, in 2016 more than ever, the question of charitable giving remains spotlighted due to intrepid reporting from The Washington Post that finds Trump’s charitable gifts fail to live up to his rhetoric, time and again. According to the Post’s estimates, while Trump has promised to give away proceeds from his books, Trump University, and “The Apprentice,” actually tracking gifts received by charities reveals numbers so, well, un-huge as to be nearly nonexistent.

Over the last eight years, the Clintons’ charitable giving has averaged around 10.8 percent of their income. The vast majority of those gifts — nearly $15 million — were to the Clinton Family Foundation. According to the Giving USA 2016 report, Americans on average give away about 2 percent of their after-tax income.

At its best, a consistent record of charitable giving reveals how one cares for and serves one’s neighbors. Giving to others — through acts of love, and through gifts of money — is central to every major religious tradition. Giving from one’s own resources to support others’ needs is a form of self-sacrifice. It shows concern for the public good and a willingness to share.

A measure of generosity

Despite recent evidence, I still maintain that serving in public office is an honorable act that shows a commitment to the common good. A strong record of charitable giving is at least one measure of a generous and caring heart for others. Trump says he has given over $100 million to charity, that giving “is one of the things I most like doing.” Yet multiple investigations have failed to show anything close to these numbers.

If the candidate truly has an enviable record to trumpet, he should release his tax filings and deductions for charitable giving. After all, generosity is in character with those truly called to serve.

Rev. Adam J. Copeland is Director of Stewardship Leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.


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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/09/2016 - 09:21 am.


    Some charitable giving is purely selfish. Personally, I don’t see tithing to a church as a charitable gift (that might adjust the numbers on Romney). If it is your religious belief to give a certain amount of money to your church, it says more about your position in the church, not necessarily of your character. Besides, because churches often use that money to further church goals, some (maybe much?) of which is not related to charity at all. Missionary work, for example, often has more to do with “spreading the word” than helping those in need. It’s all well and good to tidy up someone’s soul, but not terribly helpful if they still need food and shelter. Sorry to be so cynical about religious charity, Reverend, but I’ve seen very little local charity coming from churches.

    Second, what can someone afford? 25% of a million still leaves you $750,000 to spend on necessities (and probably a handful of wants, as well), while the fact that $995 is 0.3% of household income means that the household makes just over $300k a year. Yeah, can probably afford a bit more, but that’s a total income significantly closer to Romney’s charitable giving total than Romney’s income. I give about 1.7% of my (pretax) income to one charity and a little more here and there. That said, I don’t have kids, tuition, or grandkids to worry about, or campaigning expenses or fancy clothes for public appearances.

    Of course, that doesn’t count charitable giving of time.

    Ah, yes, time. When you’re rich, or even comfortable, it’s easy to give money to charity without upsetting your routine. Giving your time is a whole different beast. It’s hard to quantify volunteerism, certainly not on a tax return. And, arguably, volunteerism can provide more value than money. Time is worth a lot–go build a house, clean up after a storm, mentor a kid, do someone’s taxes, tutor, or serve food. You will not get a tax break on any of those things, which by the way, is one of the reasons that the ultra rich make sure a chunk of change goes to “charity.” They can pick the “charity” and get a tax break to boot.

    So, let’s not assume any character value based on charitable donations on tax returns. Whether or not Donald Trump actually gives any money to charity, it’s probably a bigger clue to his character that he lies about how much he gives. Let’s talk about the value of character of the others when charitable donation isn’t a tax deduction. Or better yet, let’s talk about how they treat people who would benefit from charity (remember Romney’s contempt for the 47%?), and how they use their time to benefit others.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 08/09/2016 - 11:54 am.

      Used to be…

      An old saying about people giving money if they had no time to give. Seems today more like giving money so they need not give time. A check, a credit card transfer, a monthly donation: all excellent conscience balms.

      I also believe a general argument many people make about “the stingy wealthy” simply is not substantiated.
      We forget about all the foundation grants and so forth that originate from immense wealth, usually old commercial pioneers. Generations later, their descendants continue personal generosity as well. We all know many of those names here in MSP, of course. All groups also depend on many small donors, to be sure.

      Giving time is a true gift, especially when that donor has so much more than time to give: experience, talent, mentoring, etc. I often recall the personal stories I heard, sometimes shared, as the pasta cook in an early Saint Paul Loves and Fishes program. I knew how to cook proper spaghetti. What I learned came from chatting with the neighborhood diners after I shut off the flames.

      Had I not given this simple weekly few hours, I likely would not have understood the true human realities along the University Ave. corridor. I most remember the very young mother who hesitated at the door with three small children…scrubbed and neatly dressed for what was an important but curious new experience.

      “Can I eat, too?” she quietly asked. “Of course you can,” I lightly reassured her. “And you can come as often as you wish. A different church group cooks here most every weeknight.”

      Rachel, I clearly have not forgotten the subtle relief I saw in her posture. I don’t need to read about public issues, no, not after that quietly personal exchange. Would I have deepened my sensibilities had I simply mailed a check? How about all those who do??

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/09/2016 - 01:00 pm.

        Thank you for the story

        There’s nothing like being a human being helping another human being in any small way. It speaks volumes to your character.

    • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/09/2016 - 12:05 pm.


      So giving to your church in not charitable giving?

      What about giving to your family foundation and giving to MinnPost? Would you consider these activities as charitable giving and worthy of a deduction?

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/09/2016 - 12:40 pm.

        Not So Amazing

        What does the church do with the money? Feed the hungry? Cure the sick? Comfort the afflicted? Or is it using those contributions to defend against lawsuits arising from covering up child abuse? Maybe the pastor wants the leather seats in his SUV? Charitable? Mitt Romney’s tithing is a requirement of his church, but the contributions are used to take care of church members only. Many–most–faith-based charities take care of anyone who comes through the door. You tell me which one is more charitable.

        MinnPost is a non-profit, but does not claim to be a charity, as far as I know. Donations would not be deductible.

        Giving to a family foundation is a typical way the wealthy manage their charitable donations. It does not mean that the family is getting any of the money–the foundation is just a conduit.

        That’s a pretty sad, albeit transparent, attempt at some Clinton snark, by the way.

        • Submitted by Claire Radomski on 08/09/2016 - 02:48 pm.

          MinnPost’s Nonprofit Status

          Hi RB. I’m jumping in here to help clarify a point in the above comment. MinnPost is a 501(c)(3), which is a nonprofit status that includes organizations like us as well as social service organizations (“charities”). Donations to MinnPost are tax deductible. 
        • Submitted by Jim Million on 08/09/2016 - 05:47 pm.

          This author seems to me

          to be (1) torturing reality as supporting examples; or, (2) just poking sticks in eyes. In either case, he shows just a tad bit of bias, don’t you think?

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/09/2016 - 12:55 pm.

        Are any of them?

        Why do we need a tax deduction? I’m not sure it’s so amazing that I believe that giving to your church shouldn’t be considered a tax deductible activity, even if it is charitable. Still, the argument is whether giving to charity can be a measure of your character, especially if one does it to get a tax deduction. Don’t get me wrong, I take the deduction for my main giving, but I do give for the sake of pure charity, too (and don’t bother to track them for deductions). Including giving my time. To answer your question, no, in many cases, I don’t consider church tithing charity at all.

        For what it’s worth, I don’t consider arts-related donations to be charitable giving–they’re contributions of appreciation. While I do donate to arts non-profits, I do not believe that such donations should be considered charitable donations, let alone considered for tax deductions.

        As for other non-profit spending, I’m very careful about where I put my charitable dollars. Sadly, I don’t have a family foundation, but if I did, I’d also be very careful about how that foundation used those dollars. (I’m not giving the Clinton Family Foundation a pass at all, by the way–I’m sure you’d be relieved to hear.) And, for what it’s worth, I don’t donate to MinnPost, either. The pot is only so big, and lots of non-profits miss out on my dollars. That’s just the way it is for us less-than-filthy-stinking-rich folks.

        • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/09/2016 - 02:27 pm.

          I just asked a question…

          I believe that there should be no deductions, not even mortgage deductions. We can have a simple tax code.

          However – that will not happen politically.

          If you believe that giving to your church or missionary work” has more to do with “spreading the word” than helping those in need” – that is fine. Many do believe that people have spiritual needs and they are better citizens by allowing faith based ministries to help meet spiritual needs. Governments have encouraged religious activity because they believe it should not be restricted by the State and that society is better for the encouragement of these activities. For some reason they believe the tax deduction for religious activity encourages the development of “character.”

          I will advocate a simpler, fairer, no deduction tax code.

          Please continue to advocate no deductions for church giving, missionary work, religious education, etc. and let us have a political debate about this subject. I think it would be political suicide for a candidate to advocate the no religious deduction position but allowing other social deductions. It would be interesting if you could find a candidate to advocate your position. It is hard for my to find a candidate that advocates my position.

  2. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 08/09/2016 - 10:07 am.

    Have to Say

    I just have to say how much I appreciate Rachel’s comment (here and on other stories).

  3. Submitted by Shaina Brassard on 08/10/2016 - 12:52 pm.

    It matters how much a person gives

    I appreciate this article because nonprofit giving does tells us something about a person’s character. We know that overall, people that make under $100,000 give a larger percentage of their income than people that make more. For a very wealthy person like Trump, not giving from his own cash income points to a sense of entitlement to wealth that was inherited, and that has very often come from exploiting people (Trump University) and the benefits of filing for bankruptcy, which taxpayers end up paying for. It shows a lack of compassion for people with less. It shows greed and individualism.

    We all need to give our money and time. Whether it is tax-deductible or not. It matters. Don’t get caught up in where people give before acknowledging that giving is good. When I give to organizations I support, I see it as an investment in a better society, which will pay out intangible and tangible benefits that have value.

  4. Submitted by Steve Rose on 08/10/2016 - 01:10 pm.

    Giving of One’s Self

    Donating blood is truly giving of one’s self.

    Only 38% of the population is eligible to give blood. Due to medical conditions, medical history, lifestyle, places traveled, many are ineligible or deferred from giving. Approximately 10% of those who are eligible are blood donors; less than 4% of the population provides 100% of the blood supply.

    Few of us enjoy being poked by a needle, though most of us submit to it when we personally benefit. If you are able, please donate blood.

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