Rick Cohen: Trump - the philanthropist with other people's money

The Republican presidential candidate's foundation doesn't do much and the money largely isn't his own, writes our columnist

Rick Cohen
Rick Cohen

Republican presidential candidate and billionaire Donald Trump is prone to exaggeration, and his braggadocio extends to his charitable and philanthropic activity.

His foundation doesn’t do much. Its most recent return to the Internal Revenue Service showed it made $913,075 in grants to largely traditional health and sports charities. The foundation’s only obviously politically connected grants in 2013 were $50,000 to the American Conservative Union and a tiny $325 to the American Civil Liberties Union chapter of Florida.

The largest grant was $115,000 to Fidelity Charitable. Nor does the foundation do much that courts controversy. Even the grants to dubious groups – $10,000 to the actor Jenny McCarthy’s charity that linked vaccines falsely to autism, and $1,000 to a non-profit co-founded by the actor Tom Cruise that offered Scientology "cleansing" services to 9/11 rescue workers in New York City – are
relatively minor aberrations from its focus on safe charities.

The foundation isn’t even playing with Trump’s own money. The Inside Sports & Entertainment Group has given the foundation nearly $2m over four years. Other major donations include $500,000 from NBC Universal Media and $1m from World Wrestling Entertainment. Like an experienced real-estate investor, Trump doesn’t risk his own money. He claims to have donated more than $100m in cash and land for charitable purposes, but hasn’t released his personal tax returns, so there is no way to confirm it. The largest portion might have been the donation of a commercial driving range at the Trump National Golf Club in California to a land conservancy that guarantees the site will be maintained as open space; but Trump gets a significant tax write-off while continuing to operate the facility.

After querying John McCain’s heroism as a prisoner in North Vietnam for several years, Trump claimed he’d made a $1m matching grant in 1995 for a veterans parade in New York City. This year, he gave a speech at a fundraiser for Veterans for a Strong America, only to discover later that it had lost its tax-exempt status and was largely a fake.

It seems "the Donald" is happy to play the philanthropist with other people’s money and, when offering his own property, if it’s to his personal benefit. Call it an unpublished chapter of Trump’s self-touted book, The Art of the Deal.

Rick Cohen is national correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly in Boston, Massachusetts

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