Donald Trump and the problem with celebrity foundations

How many more celebrity charitable foundations do we need? Is it time for celebrities to resist the trend of starting their own foundations, and simply donate to trusted established charities instead?
Jonny Harper

It’s become a cliché to talk about how this year’s US presidential election has been defined by the public’s dislike – even hatred, in some quarters – of both candidates.

It’s not unusual for people to loathe politicians. It is remarkable, however, that this year’s race has even managed to cause reputational harm to the charity sector, and celebrity charitable foundations in particular.

The Clinton Foundation, set up by Hillary and her husband in 1997, has won widespread praise for the humanitarian programmes it operates around the world. Nonetheless, it’s recently been the subject of criticism, with Republicans hurling accusations of alleged corruption and misappropriation of funds.

Most of these accusations – in keeping with the tone of Donald Trump’s campaign – range from misleading to blatantly untrue (The Clinton Foundation spends between 85-90% of its income on its programmes – not 6%, as reported by former Republican candidate Carly Fiorina). However, there are certainly some more concerning allegations about the conflicts of interest that arise when private (or indeed foreign) interests offer sizable donations to a charity run by two of the most powerful politicians in the USA.

These problems pale in comparison to the controversies swamping Trump’s private foundation. The Trump foundation appears to be almost laughably opaque, ineffective and corrupt.

According to Washington Post journalist David Fahrenthold, Trump has allegedly used money from the charity to settle his legal disputes, donate to a pressure group that opposes regulation of political fundraising, and even purchase a life-size portrait of himself for one of his golf courses.

Controversies like these certainly damage our ability to trust politicians. But more concerningly for the charity sector, they also feed into a growing sense of mistrust of celebrity charitable foundations.

This has been fuelled by a number of high-profile celebrity foundations that have suffered from poor management, neglect or scandal recently. Mo Farah’s foundation, for example, closed earlier this year after it was revealed to be spending almost twice as much money on overheads as it was on charitable activities. Rafts of other celebrity foundations have suffered a similar fate, including The Kanye West Foundation and the Shane Warne Foundation.

Other celebrities found perfectly effective charities, but are guilty of overdoing it. Prince Charles can’t seem to visit somewhere or do something without wanting to start a new charity. While many of these do a lot of good, you wonder whether one man having so many charities (I lost count at 17) might seem like overkill to the public.

Many foundations do incredible work, so it’s a real shame to see their credibility damaged by other celebrities who have little knowledge of (and indeed interest in) running a serious charity.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, shows how fame and personal wealth can be used to make real, transformational change for the people who need it most. It gives grants in excess of $3bn each year, and has played a major part in the eradication of malaria and polio in a number of countries around world.

The Elton John AIDS Foundation is another shining light. The charity has been stable and effective for over 20 years, and to his credit Elton contributes a considerable proportion of his own income despite the Foundation’s wider success as a fundraising organisation (Unlike Trump, who allegedly hasn’t given to his foundation since 2008 and yet still takes personal credit for its grant-giving).

But sadly, for every Bill Gates or Elton John, there’s a Didier Drogba. The former Chelsea striker’s foundation is being probed by the charity commission after it allegedly spent only £14,000 of £1.7m raised over six years in the UK on its charitable work.

Given the damage caused by critical media coverage of charities over the last year, maybe it’s time for celebrities like these to resist the trend of starting their own foundations, and instead simply donate to a trusted, established charity.

After all, we know that their motivations are nothing but selfless.


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