In a city housing thousands of Katrina evacuees, Barbara Bush’s donation to a local hurricane relief fund normally would not seem controversial.
But more than a few eyebrows were raised when the former first lady stipulated that part of her contribution was to be spent on educational software purchased from her son Neil’s company, Ignite Learning of Austin, Texas.
“I would think if she wants to do something beneficial for Katrina victims, she shouldn’t be making the decision that the vendor is her son,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a charity watchdog group. “Other education experts need to be making that decision, not somebody who has a family interest in the success of her son’s business.”
Barbara Bush’s donation to the Bush-Clinton Houston Hurricane Relief Fund was made a few weeks ago, said Steve Maislin, president of the Greater Houston Community Foundation, which administers the fund. That fund, which supports Houston-area relief efforts, is not connected to the national Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, he said.
The Houston fund forwarded Bush’s donation to another nonprofit organization, which bought the software.
“There are a lot of students who went through Katrina and Rita in the Houston area, and she wanted to do something very specific to help them,” Jean Becker, chief of staff for former President George H.W. Bush, said of Barbara Bush.
“She is a huge fan of her son’s software program -- it has gotten great reviews from teachers and students -- and she wanted to make sure it was available to the students.”
Maislin would not disclose the amount of the donation, but he said it was not unusual for a contributor to specify how his or her money should be spent.
“It’s common for someone to say: ‘I want to give money, but I want it to go to a certain organization,’ ” he said.
But Borochoff said donors who direct that their money be used to buy products from a family business set a bad precedent.
“If everybody started doing that, it would ruin our whole system for tax-exempt organizations, because people would be using them to benefit their business rather than for the public benefit. That’s not why our government gives tax deductions for donations,” he said. “I hope other donors across the country don’t start dictating that their contributions go to their family business. That would be a rip-off of our tax system.”
Bush contributed to the relief fund instead of directly to her son’s company to help publicize the nonprofit, Maislin said. “It helps us when someone with her visibility contributes. We could advertise the fact ... and help build momentum” for donations.