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How Philanthropic Is the Trump Cabinet?

January 17, 2017

Here are the facts, decide for yourself. After a bitter election season dominated by spin, lies and fake news, that may sound like a radical proposition, but it is what we do at Foundation Center. In releasing "Eye on the Trump Cabinet" as the newest feature of our Glasspockets website, our goal is track the charitable giving related to cabinet nominees and their nonprofit board service. 

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There has been a lot of speculation among philanthropic foundations about what the new administration might mean for the sector. Will lower tax rates reduce charitable giving? If government retreats from social programs will foundations be expected to take up the slack? Will new regulations be introduced to somehow influence the kinds of priorities foundations support? At the extremes, I have heard people assert: "These people (the new administration) don't know anything about philanthropy," and I've even fielded a question from a Danish reporter who wanted to know whether the controversy over the Clinton and Trump foundations would lead to the end of transparency in the sector. But what do the data tell us? 

"Eye on the Trump Cabinet" shows that, as a whole, Trump's cabinet nominees are by no means strangers to philanthropy. Indeed, collectively, they are related to twenty-five different foundations. By "related," we mean foundations that are either run by a cabinet nominee or a family member, or foundations to which they might have been affiliated or served as a board member. To learn more about those foundations, click on the links to their profiles in Foundation Directory Online and check out their 990 tax returns to learn about their operating expenses, specific grants, and investments. The data also show that cabinet nominees have served on the boards of nearly fifty nonprofit organizations focused on everything from education and veterans' affairs, to health, to children and youth. 

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With philanthropy as a lens, perhaps most notable among the nominees is Betsy DeVos, who comes from a strong family tradition of philanthropy and, together with her husband, is the co-founder of a significant foundation (the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation). Until recently, she also served as board chair for the Philanthropy Roundtable, a membership organization of foundations and donors that is a vital part of the infrastructure that upholds institutional philanthropy. Among the core beliefs of the Roundtable are that philanthropic freedom is essential to a free society and that voluntary private action offers solutions for many of society's most pressing challenges. 

Foundations and nonprofits cannot (and should not) take the place of government, in large part because their resources, while significant, are dwarfed by federal and state budgets as well as those of the business sector. On the contrary, their limited resources are valuable precisely because it is their nonprofit, independent status that gives them the freedom to innovate, take risks, support controversial causes, stick with tough challenges for the long term, and provide core support to critical societal institutions.

The relationship between government and the philanthropic sector can be one of collaboration or disagreement, or both, but that relationship has been part of the fabric of American democracy for more than a hundred years. Foundation Center, itself a nonprofit, was born in 1956 out of McCarthy-era hearings convened to determine whether foundations were supporting un-American activities. The sector's response was to create Foundation Center as a public information service that could help show that foundations had nothing to hide. We believe that transparency will, in the long run, always prove its value. How philanthropic is the new administration? Explore Eye on the Trump Cabinet, draw your own conclusions, wait, watch, and, above all, participate. 

Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center. This post originally appeared on Foundation Center's Transparency Talk blog.

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