• January 24, 2015

The Politics of Giving: Employees of Big Nonprofit Groups Give Mostly to Democrats

Janet Marcotte, executive director of YWCA Tucson has contributed $4,600, the maximum amount allowed by law, to help Sen. Barack Obama become president. She also attended the Democratic National Convention as a volunteer and traveled to New Mexico to help drum up support for the Illinois senator.

“I haven’t been inspired like this since I was a teenager working for Robert Kennedy,” she says, referring to the 1968 Democratic primary campaign.

Ms. Marcotte, who emphasizes that she is speaking for herself and not the YWCA, calls Mr. Obama a “rare and exceptional talent” who would do more to help the women and children that her organization serves than his Republican opponent would.

According to federal campaign records, Ms. Marcotte has a lot of company in the charitable world: People who work at large charities and foundations have favored Senator Obama — and Democrats in general — by a large margin during this election season.

At The Chronicle’s request, the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, compiled data from the Federal Election Commission on donations to presidential and Congressional candidates and political-party committees from staff members at the 25 wealthiest foundations and 75 of the largest charities. Of almost $1.2-million contributed from January 2007 through August 2008, 88 percent went to Democrats.

The donors gave more than 12 times as much money to Senator Obama as to his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, of Arizona — about $399,000 to almost $32,000.

Charity employees favored Democrats by 82 percent to 18 percent, and foundation employees by 98 percent to 2 percent.

First Such Study

The study, the first to look at giving among officials and other employees of big foundations and charities, covers contributions that they make in their private lives. The data cover only contributions of $200 or more, which must be reported to the Federal Election Commission. (For more details on how the research was conducted, see this article.)

The research project was complicated by the way donations are reported to the commission, so it is possible that some details — such as exactly how many employees contributed — are not accurate. But the data are solid enough to make clear that charity and foundation campaign contributors favored Democrats by a large margin.

“There’s an overwhelmingly uniform personal ideology among this group, it seems,” says Massie Ritsch, communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics. “How that translates into their work, if at all, is up for debate and hard to measure with data.”

Federal law bars charities and foundations, as a condition of their tax-exempt status, from endorsing, or even appearing to favor, political candidate or party. But the law also requires public disclosure of the names, employers, and occupations of campaign donors — even when they are giving from their own pocketbooks — as part of a larger effort to reduce the influence of money on politics.

Ellen S. Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a group in Washington that fights to open federal-government records to public scrutiny, says that while employees make donations as private citizens, charities and foundations need to recognize that “information about who gives and to whom” is on the public record.

The goal of disclosure rules, she says, is to make clear how donations might affect a lawmaker’s views on a certain issue. For example, the public should know if employees in any field, including charities or foundations, are donating large sums of money in an effort to influence Congress or the president,

If nonprofit groups’ leaders don’t want people to know which candidates they are supporting, she says, “you don’t give.” (Read more about the debate over whether campaign records of nonprofit officials are fair game for public scrutiny.)

$430,000 vs. $8,400

According to The Chronicle study, employees of foundations were likelier than those of charities to support Democrats. They donated about $430,000 to Democrats and only about $8,400 to Republicans.

More than $126,000 went to Senator Obama, compared with about $4,000 to Senator McCain.

Some of the Obama donations came from foundation chief executives, according to federal records, including: Douglas Nelson, president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in Baltimore ($3,150); Jeffrey Raikes, chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in Seattle ($4,600); and Paul Brest, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in Menlo Park, Calif. ($2,000).

Employees and officials of the Broad Foundations, in Los Angeles, gave the most to federal candidates of any of the big foundations studied — more than $150,000 — primarily because of the large donations made by the founders, Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe Broad, who together provided all but $250 of the total.

Mr. Broad, who made his fortune in the home-building industry, donated a total of $45,000 to the Democratic Congressional and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committees and contributed to a wide variety of Democratic politicians, including Sen. Max Baucus, of Montana, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee; Sen. Barbara Boxer, of California; and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, of Connecticut.

Mrs. Broad donated $2,300 to Senator Obama, but she and Mr. Broad each also contributed the maximum $4,600 to the campaign of the senator’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, of New York. Mrs. Broad also gave $2,300 to Senator McCain. (The Broads were traveling this week and unavailable for comment on their donations.)

The Gates Foundation ranked second; 37 staff members provided a total of more than $100,000, all to Democrats. Among the contributors were William Gates Sr., a co-chair of the foundation, who gave $2,300 each to Senator Obama and Senator Clinton. (His son, Bill, who helped start the foundation, has donated to several Congressional candidates, both Democratic and Republican, this election cycle, but his giving was not included in the total, because his primary occupation until recently was as chairman of the Microsoft Corporation.)

Employees of charities in the study donated a total of about $605,000 to Democrats (including more than $272,000 to Senator Obama) and about $129,000 to Republicans (including nearly $28,000 to Senator McCain).

Some heads of big charities are Obama supporters. Helene Gayle, president of CARE, the international-relief group based in Atlanta, donated $3,200. Hala Moddelmog, president of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a breast-cancer group, in Dallas, gave $2,300. Emmett Carson, president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, gave $2,300. Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, in Washington — and a member of a high-profile Democratic family — gave $1,000.

Charities with employees who gave the most money were at the headquarters and affiliates of the Nature Conservancy (more than $67,000, 93 percent to Democrats); the YMCA (almost $62,000, 74 percent to Democrats), the American Red Cross (almost $52,000, 73 percent to Democrats), and the American Cancer Society (more than $50,000, 88 percent to Democrats).

Greg Donaldson, the cancer society’s national vice president for corporate communications, cautions against reading much into the finding, which covered 40 of its employees.

“Keep in mind that the society has more than 6,000 employees nationwide,” he says.

Sheffield Hale, the cancer society’s chief counsel, says it would be wrong to draw conclusions about the leanings of the nonprofit work force on the basis of who gives to political candidates, particularly those who give enough to meet the $200 threshold for public disclosure. Some employees give less than $200; others support candidates by volunteering or simply voting; and other factors come into play as well, he says.

“You can’t extrapolate and say that because ‘x’ number of people gave ‘x’ amount to Democrats and ‘y’ amount to Republicans, that’s the ratio of the support within an organization,” he says. Mr. Hale, who said he was speaking as an individual and not for the cancer society, has given to several Democratic candidates during this election cycle and has donated to Republicans in the past. “There is no correlation, but people like the anecdotal evidence: Oh, see, they give money, so therefore a whole organization is full of these people.”

Without proper context, Mr. Hale says with a rueful laugh, the finding of strong support for Democrats is “going to just play into the prejudice out there about a bunch of pointy-headed liberals running foundations and charities.”

‘That’s Our Community’

Senator Obama’s popularity in the charitable world is not surprising to many observers. The Democratic candidate often speaks of his work as a community organizer in Chicago early in his career.

“That resonates with many charities — that’s our community, he may think a little like us,” says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a government-watchdog group in Washington, who says he has made small donations to the Obama campaign.

What’s more, says Mr. Bass, Senator Obama seems more open than Senator McCain to using government to help people in need. That appeals to many people who are attracted to nonprofit work, Mr. Bass says — both because they believe that it promotes social justice and because their organizations often rely on government money.

Senator McCain, too, has supporters among nonprofit groups. David Adams, vice president for international missions at Cross International, a Christian relief group, in Pompano Beach, Fla., contributed $1,300 to the Republican candidate this year, according to federal records, although Mr. Adams says he believes he has now given more than that. He supports Mr. McCain largely because the Arizona senator opposes abortion, but also because he has more experience than his opponent.

“I’m pro-life, and the whole issue of what kind of judges would be appointed in an Obama administration gives me chills up my spine,” Mr. Adams says, emphasizing that he is speaking for himself and not his organization.

But not all of those who work at philanthropies are as open about their political giving.

The Chronicle requested interviews with the heads or senior executives of eight large foundations and 10 large charities, including all of those mentioned above, to discuss how they decide which political candidate to support, or why they don’t give, as the case may be. Most declined to be interviewed, some explaining through spokesmen that their organizations are nonpartisan and that campaign contributions are personal matters.

A Personal Choice

Charles MacCormack, chief executive of Save the Children, a global relief charity, was the only head of a national organization contacted by The Chronicle who agreed to discuss his campaign donations. Federal election records turned up one donation by Mr. MacCormack during this election period: $500 to Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican who represents the Connecticut district where Save the Children is located.

That donation was a rare exception to his general policy of remaining strictly nonpartisan, even in his personal life, Mr. MacCormack says, because his group works with politicians across the political spectrum.

“As the top of the organization and trying to set a tone, I would never have a bumper sticker on my automobile or anything that suggested what preferences I have,” he says. “I never have a sign on my lawn, and on and on.”

He gave to Mr. Shays — and previously to Senator Dodd the Connecticut Democrat — because the two former Peace Corps volunteers have been “champions” for Save the Children. Mr. MacCormack says he makes his donations in between election races, so he does not have to pick one candidate over another.

About half a dozen other charity or foundation employees contacted by The Chronicle about their campaign contributions also declined to be interviewed or failed to return telephone calls or e-mail messages.

Dependent on Good Will

While philanthropic organizations are nervous about violating the restrictions on political activity, many charities also rely heavily on government money and depend on the good will of both parties to achieve their public-policy goals.

Diana Aviv, president of Independent Sector, a coalition of charities and foundations in Washington, says that “many nonprofit executives of major national organizations, particularly those who have some public-interest activity that is a part of their work where they have to deal with Congress, do indeed feel constrained to talk about their political affiliation and do feel constrained to give donations.”

These executives believe, she says, “that should they do that, that it is possible that if the party that wins is not the party that they supported, that their organization could be adversely affected or could be jeopardized in some way,” she says.

“That’s not my personal opinion,” Ms. Aviv adds. “I draw a strong line. And I don’t discuss my personal political positions with anybody and what donations I make.” (According to federal records, Ms. Aviv donated $2,800 to Senator Obama’s election effort this year.)

Steve Taylor, vice president for public policy at the United Way of America, in Alexandria, Va., is among those who refrain from donating to political candidates — even though he spent years working as counsel to Sen. Chuck Hagel the Nebraska Republican, and to a Senate subcommittee.

“I have found during my time in policy that I’m able to be effective in my job by keeping my personal views a little distant from the work that I have,” says Mr. Taylor. “That comes from my training as a lawyer. That was really how I approached my job with the senators. It served me well because my job was not to advance my personal views. My job was to represent them, and that’s my job here” at the United Way of America.

But other philanthropic officials defend their right to support the candidates of their choice.

“I didn’t give up my civil rights when I came to work for the organization,” says Mr. Hale, of the American Cancer Society. His contributions during this election cycle include $250 to Senator Obama and a total of $3,250 to three Democratic Congressional candidates in Georgia.

Mr. Hale says he gives to candidates he knows personally in both political parties, rather than consider which ones would be best for the American Cancer Society. “I’m not a single-issue supporter, and I never have been,” he says. “I vote for the person and the totality of what they stand for.”

Civic Participation

Many charitable organizations encourage their employees to vote and participate in civic life — and to donate time or money to political campaigns — as long as they take great care to keep those activities separate from their jobs. (Read more about the policies of nonprofit groups and foundations.)

Mr. Adams, of Cross International, says he is careful to separate his political activity from his work. When he was asked to sit on the steering committee of the National Catholics for McCain Committee, he talked over how to handle it with his boss before accepting the offer.

“We both agreed — not just him telling me, but both of us talking it through — that as much as possible, I would disconnect my part in the [pro-McCain committee] from my employment at Cross International,” he says. (In the news release announcing the formation of the pro-McCain committee, Mr. Adams is described as a retired Foreign Service officer.)

He says he uses only his personal e-mail address and cell phone to conduct political activity.

Ms. Marcotte, of YWCA Tucson, says she, too, refrains from using her organization’s name in any of her campaign work and is careful not to bring her politics into the office.

“You always have to stop and think, particularly if you’re the leader of an organization,” she says. “People do associate your organization with you. There have been times when I’ve been quieter about my support. This year has just felt so important I stepped in in a bigger way.”


You can send an e-mail message about this article to the editor of The Chronicle or the authors, Suzanne Perry and Grant Williams.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Raise more money and increase awareness with trusted insight.