Paul Singer is an activist investor, GOP megadonor, and philanthropist. What is it funding?
If you’ve heard of activist investor Paul Elliott Singer, perhaps it’s for his infamous 14-year legal fight to force Argentina to repay the sovereign debt he acquired at rock-bottom prices, tempting even at one point to seize a ship from the country’s navy.
The billionaire ultimately won the courtroom battle, if not the PR campaign, by extracting a $2.4 billion payout of Argentina in 2016 as he was pilloried for the financial pain he was inflicting on the country’s citizens. The reviews of left and right called him a “vulture capitalist,” and the New Yorker later dubbed him the “Doomsday investor.”
Singer has never garnered more attention for his philanthropy, but the episode offers potential insight into his personality and approach as a donor. On the one hand, he is clearly willing to hold highly unpopular public posts, although this is not yet a hallmark of his philanthropy. He’s also comfortable with long-term bets, with his foundation sending large checks to select beneficiaries year after year.
Although it’s hard to tell how closely the events are connected, the year after Argentina’s installment, Singer doubled the foundation’s assets, his last major asset injection. Thanks to this donation, the Paul E. Singer Foundation is now a quiet but important philanthropic force. It has nearly $1 billion in assets and a distribution rate that has often reached 10% of its assets, double the required rate, with most of its grants going to Jewish causes. For several reasons, it is an institution to watch.
First, singer sign the Giving Pledge in 2013, pledging to donate at least half of his fortune to charity. With a fortune valued at $5.5 billion, the 78-year-old has the wherewithal to become a much larger donor or make his foundation one of the largest in the country, assuming he sticks to his pledge.
Second, Singer is already a major power broker. He was an important political player for the past decade–more, ranking with the Koch brothers as one of the largest, if not as well-known, Republican donors in the country. Often referred to as Wall Street “most feared” an activist investor, Singer and his company Elliott Management have pushed through changes at some of the world’s most important corporations. For example, until Elon Musk’s takeover, Singer had a headquarters on the Twitter dashboard, and launched a campaign which successfully led to the resignation of co-founder Jack Dorsey as CEO. A growing grant portfolio would only increase its influence.
Third, like so many other today’s wealthy donors, there’s a lot of uncertainty about how much money Singer is actually moving and where it’s going. Most of the foundation’s grants over the past few years have been directed to a donor-advised fund, which means there is no legal requirement to quickly transfer this funding to charities or disclose the beneficiaries who ultimately receive it. Still, these distributions technically meet — or circumvent — the usual foundation payment requirements.
Singer and his team declined our request for an interview or comment, but we know enough about his gifts so far. Here’s what IRS filings and other public sources reveal about the 70-year-old billionaire’s passions and philanthropic practices — and what they don’t. (Technical note: The foundation ends its tax year on November 30, but for simplicity, this article refers to calendar years.)
What does Paul Elliott Singer fund?
As a philanthropist, Singer is best known for his support of Jewish causes. Most of the foundation’s publicly traded grants go to Jewish groups, including regular seven-figure awards to organizations like Birthright Israel, which offers free trips to Israel to young adults of Jewish descent, and the UJA Federation. of New York, a philanthropic intermediary. Small donations to other Jewish-focused groups dominate the foundation’s list of recipients.
There are other passions. One of the foundation’s major recurring grantees is New York-based think tank Manhattan Institute, where Singer currently chairs the board of directors. The relationship goes back many years and several million dollars. A Wall Street Favoritethe think tank works to promote a range of conservative policies, such as lowering corporate taxes and “broken windows” theory of law enforcement. Singer’s endorsement suggests an interest in establishing a long-term conservative agenda, in addition to supporting current candidates.
The singer is also known for LGBTQ funding – it’s notable in part because it’s been public about how his son coming out as gay changed his perspective, and in part because of the contrast with his Support for conservative politicians – although in recent years few or no major foundation prizes have been awarded to such groups.
The foundation has always had a philanthropic imprint in New York City, mostly sending small checks to hospitals, universities, police groups and cultural institutions. Recently, these have included the New-York Historical Society, NYU, and the city’s Police Athletic League. That said, Singer was one of many aging financial industry billionaires to movement his business in Florida in recent years – others include Carl Icahn and Ken Griffin. He reportedly plans to continue working from the northeast, so maybe nothing will change in terms of the region he prioritizes.
The great unknown of the Singer Foundation
Stepping back, the reality is that while many individual grants go to Jewish causes, most of Singer’s funds go into the infamous philanthropic black box: a donor-advised fund. Between 2015 and 2020, three quarters of all of the foundation’s funding — $191 million — went to a JPMorgan donation fund at the National Philanthropic Trust, according to tax filings.
As we often point out at IP, these accounts have no payment or disclosure requirements, unlike foundations. Advocates say DAFs offer donors privacy and convenience, and facilitate cooperation among donors. Yet the downside is a lack of transparency or accountability as to where the funds go, or even if they are distributed. (In this case, given the foundation’s above-minimum payout rate, it seems likely that the money sent to the DAFs will be transferred.)
While DAFs are growing in popularity, the Singer Foundation is, for now, an exception in the field. Less than 2% of foundations issued any grants to commercial DAFs between 2016 and 2018, according to a March Analysis by the progressive Institute for Policy Studies. The Singer Foundation, on the other hand, is one of the nation’s top 10 grantmaking foundations to commercial DAFs.
Who is in charge?
Singer doesn’t sit alone atop his foundation. In 2020, the operation had four other trustees, all with close professional and personal ties to the donor. The list included an Elliott Management partneran old Fundraising Giuliani and veteran singer advisorand one longtime friend and attorney for Singer. The last member is the head strategic human resources at Elliott and, according to media reports and one court case filed against the company, has been the billionaire’s love partner for about a decade. It’s not a band that changes a lot; these five had been in place since 2013.
The foundation’s staff – five of whom are listed in its 990 forms – come from the private sector and the political sphere (at least as of 2020). Their resumes show stops at places like Merrill Lynch, McKinsey and the Republican National Senate Committee. The current Managing Director, Daniel Bonner, has spent most of his working life with the foundation, according to LinkedIn. He joined Singer a year after graduating from college and has worked with the grantmaker for nearly nine years.
Neither of Singer’s sons, Andrew Singer and Gordon Morris-Singer, serve on the board of their father’s foundation. However, both are administrators, with him, of the Paul Singer Family Foundation. It’s a small operation by comparison, with just $20 million in assets and annual grants approaching $1 million, at least as of 2020. In recent years, its grants have consisted of a handful of five-a-side prizes. and six figures, often at universities. such as Williams College, although VH1’s Save the Music Foundation has also been a regular recipient.
Opaque charitable donations
Singer, like many living donors, keeps a low profile for his philanthropy. He only has one modest website for its foundation – no names, no numbers, no details. The New York Times once reported “He declined several invitations to be honored for his philanthropy.”
This is understandable, perhaps even admirable. But looking at his political giving side-by-side with his charitable giving offers another remarkable example of the opacity of today’s 501(c)(3) giving. even when compared to the often murky world of electoral politics.
The singer would have given $24 million in the 2016 election cycle, and it has contributed about $12 million so far this year, according to the Federal Election Commission. Taxpayers have not subsidized anything and you can find a detailed list of all recipients online. Grants from his foundation, meanwhile, have averaged $42 million a year in recent years. Unlike these political contributions, it is both fiscally advantageous and, because it mainly goes through a DAF, completely anonymous. Despite all the black money in politics, it’s ironic that in Singer’s case, we know more about his public political giving than his philanthropic giving.
There are likely a rational explanation of why he gives in this way – such as timing and tax benefits. Proponents of the DAF cite many benefits, including raising funds for collaborative funds, as Blue Meridian Partners once did. And given Singer’s openness about his political leanings, there may not be any big surprises in DAF’s grant slate. If anything, given his many very public investment battles, you’d think he’d have no problem publicizing his philanthropic pursuits. But without disclosure, there’s no way to know what’s going on.
Singer is one of the most powerful people in the country. Yet the current rules do not answer the question of what his philanthropy supports. We have a few clues, but mostly it’s a mystery. It’s perfectly legal for now, but should it be?