Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Presidential Candidates as Philanthropists

As I've come to trust the Bible more fully, I've become convinced that what a person gives away says far more about them than almost any other measure of integrity and commitment.

Is that giving sacrificial (which relates to percentage)? Is it God-honoring (which relates to the causes they give it to)? And is it given from a cheerful heart (their motivation)?

The true givers I have known start at 10% and increase the percentage as they are financially blessed. They give cheerfully and quietly. And they give through a portfolio of wisely considered investments designed to make a positive impact on the world in mitigating human need ... considering their local body (their church) first and foremost, and other worthy organizations second.

In light of these beliefs I thought it would be instructive to take a look at the two primary candidates for the presidency. The final question (cheerful heart) is one that I can't answer from the record (in addition, one really suspects that candidate philanthropy, at least during these past few years, might possibly be related to political ambitions).

But I think it is nonetheless interesting and possibly instructive to look at the candidates' giving patterns.

My source is ...

Barack Obama
  • Barack Obama, and his wife, Michelle, have donated $240,370 to charity over the last year, which represents 5.7 percent of their income, according to their tax return for 2007. (My note: If you calculate this out, that puts their 2007 income at over $4.2 million.)

  • The Obamas donated to 33 churches and charities in 2007, with the United Negro College Fund receiving the largest gift, of $50,000. They also gave $35,000 to CARE, the international relief organization, and $26,270 to Trinity United Church of Christ, whose pastor is Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

  • The Obamas released general information about their income and charitable donations since 2000 last month, which revealed a sharp increase in income and percentage of charitable contributions starting in 2005. From 2000 through 2004, the Obamas' total income did not top $300,000 and their charitable giving represented about 1 percent of their income. (My note: So, under more normal circumstances, when he's not running for President, Obama donated about $3,000 per year to charity ... less than a third of what a family like mine, which makes around $100k per year and is tithing, donates. Hmmm.)

John McCain
  • In 2007, John McCain contributed $105,467 of his $405,409 income to charity, according to his tax returns, which represented 26 percent of his total income. In 2006, he donated 18 percent — $64,695 of $358,414 in income — to charitable efforts.

  • According to Mr. McCain's campaign, most of his charitable contributions were made through the John and Cindy McCain Family Foundation, which supports organizations that work "for the spiritual, educational, and medical needs of the community." Supported organizations include Operation Smile, which repairs facial abnormalities in young people, and the Halo Trust, which removes land mines.

  • Cindy McCain, an heir to a beer fortune who keeps most of her finances separate from her husband's, did not release her 2007 tax return or disclose how much she donated to charity on her own. But Senator McCain said she donated the same amount he did, $105,467, from their joint assets.

  • Senator McCain donates royalties from his books and increases in his Senate salary to charity.

My note: As far as I am aware, John McCain is not a churchgoing believer who subscribes to the principle of tithing, so I am not sure his giving can be judged in the same manner as someone like Barack Obama who supposedly is a churchgoing Christian. But it is interesting nonetheless to see that his charitable giving far outstrips Obama's (at least in terms of percentage). Also interesting to see (given all the assumptions) that, at least on paper, Obama is a far wealthier man.

To be fair, of course, you have to consider Cindy McCain's beer fortune in the mix somewhere. Even though says it is unreported, she recently released her 2007 income tax statement which reveals her 2007 income at about $4.1 million. So, this puts the McCain family roughly on a par with the Obama family, in terms of income, and slightly below the Obamas (in 2007 anyway) in terms of combined donations.

So, what can be learned from this? My general impression is that while John McCain is more generous on paper, neither candidate is really shining when it comes to philanthropy. But I am most intrigued by what Barack Obama's charity life was like before the sudden and sharp increase in wealth that occurred last year. When I sit down with the elders of our church, we fantasize about how much ministry could be done if the average member of our body actually obeyed and tithed their 10%. Even if only half or two-thirds of that amount came to the church, and the rest went to other ministries, it would double our church budget, since our average giver contributes maybe 3%. (Which, sadly, is on a par with, or possibly better than, most church numbers.)

But, our average giver is making maybe $50,000 per year or less. And Obama, when he was making $300,000, was giving only 1% away. I wonder if that's a result of the philosophy that it's the responsibility of government (through higher taxes, of course) to take care of all those human needs out there. That seems to be the direction, philosophically, that an Obama administration would head, as he has stated support for across-the-board, significant increases for government programs such as:
  • The National Endowment for the Arts ($35 million increase in 2008)
  • U.S. Dept. of Education's "Arts in Education Model"
  • Artist/Museum Partnership Act (S 372) giving tax breaks to artists
  • "Early learning challenge" grants ($10 billion/year)
  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers (would double the federal budget for this after-school program)
  • A proposed "step up" plan supporting summer learning opportunities for disadvantaged children
  • American Opportunity Tax Credit (would ensure that the first $4,000 of a college education is free for everyone, would cover 2/3 of the average cost of tuition at public colleges, and make community college tuition free)
  • More federal money for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program
  • Would require companies to pay more (to the government) for carbon emissions in order to help low-income people pay heating and cooling bills
  • He also "fundamentally wants to encourage bright young people to become civil servants," through methods that some fear would bleed talent from nonprofit organizations (in order to increase or support an increase in federal bureaucracy)
  • He would also significantly expand slots in public-service programs such as AmeriCorps and Peace Corps
Would an Obama presidency help or hurt nonprofits? That question is still being debated. But it seems pretty clear to me that Obama would shift financial resources, as well as other human resources, away from the pool of resources that is currently available to nonprofits, and toward big government. His record and his personal philosophy also leads one to believe he would create a regulatory environment that would make it more challenging for churches and other nonprofits to continue to operate.