If you’ve heard of the activist investor Paul Elliott Singer, it might be for his infamous 14-year legal fight to force Argentina to repay sovereign debt he had acquired at fire sale prices, at one point even attempting to seize a vessel from the country’s navy.
The billionaire ultimately won the courtroom battle, if not the public relations campaign, extracting a $2.4 billion payout from Argentina in 2016 while being pilloried for the financial pain it inflicted on the nation’s citizens. Critics from left and right called him a “vulture capitalist,” and the New Yorker later dubbed him the “Doomsday Investor.”
Singer has never earned so much attention for his philanthropy, but the episode offers potential insight into his personality and approach as a donor. For one, he is clearly willing to take highly unpopular public positions, although that’s not yet been a feature of his philanthropy. He’s also comfortable with long-term bets, with his foundation sending big checks to certain grantees year after year.
Although it’s hard to say to what extent the events are related, the year after the Argentina payout, Singer doubled the foundation’s assets, its last major infusion of assets. Thanks to that donation, the Paul E. Singer Foundation is now a quiet but significant philanthropic force. It has nearly $1 billion in assets and a payout rate that has often reached 10% of its assets, or twice the required rate, with most of its grants going to Jewish causes. For several reasons, it’s an institution to watch.
First, Singer signed the Giving Pledge in 2013, committing to donate at least half of his wealth to charity. With a fortune estimated at $5.5 billion, the 78-year-old has the means to become a much bigger donor or to turn his foundation into one of the nation’s largest, assuming he follows through on the pledge.
Second, Singer is already a major power broker. He’s been a significant political player for the past decade-plus, ranking with the Koch brothers as one of the country’s largest Republican donors, if not as well known. Often called Wall Street’s “most feared” activist investor, Singer and his firm Elliott Management have pushed through changes at some of the world’s most prominent corporations. For instance, until Elon Musk’s takeover, Singer had a seat on Twitter’s board, and launched a campaign that successfully led to cofounder Jack Dorsey’s resignation as CEO. A growing grant portfolio would only increase his influence.
Third, as with so many wealthy donors today, there’s a lot of uncertainty around how much money Singer is actually moving and where it’s going. Most of the foundation’s grantmaking in recent years has been channeled into a donor-advised fund, which means there is no legal requirement to quickly pass that funding on to charities or disclose the grantees who ultimately receive it. Yet those distributions technically meet — or get around — the usual foundation payout requirements.
Singer and his team declined our request for an interview or comment, but we do know a decent amount about his giving to date. Here’s what IRS filings and other public sources reveal about the philanthropic passions and practices of this septuagenarian billionaire — and what they do not. (A 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 supporting Jewish causes. Most of the foundation’s publicly listed grants go to Jewish groups, including regular seven-figure awards to organizations like Birthright Israel, which offers free trips to Israel for young adults of Jewish descent, and UJA Federation of New York, a philanthropic intermediary. Smaller gifts to other Jewish-focused groups dominate the foundation’s list of grantees.
There are some other passions. One of the foundation’s recurring major grantees is the New York think tank the Manhattan Institute, where Singer currently chairs the board of directors. The relationship dates back many years and many millions of dollars. A Wall Street favorite, the ideas factory works to promote a range of conservative policies, such as lowering corporate taxes, and the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement. Singer’s support suggests an interest in long-term conservative agenda-setting, in addition to support for current candidates.
Singer is also known for LGBTQ funding — it’s notable in part because he’s been public about how his son coming out as gay changed his views, and in part due to the contrast with his support for conservative politicians — though in recent years, few if any big foundation awards have gone to such groups.
The foundation has historically had a philanthropic footprint in New York City, sending mostly smaller 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 several aging finance industry billionaires to move his firm to Florida in recent years — others include Carl Icahn and Ken Griffin. He reportedly planned to continue working from the Northeast, so perhaps nothing will change in terms of what region he prioritizes.
The great unknown about Singer’s foundation
Stepping back, the reality is that while a lot of individual grants go to Jewish causes, most of Singer’s funding goes into the infamous philanthropic blackbox: a donor-advised fund. Between 2015 and 2020, three-quarters of all the foundation’s funding — $191 million — went to a JPMorgan Giving Fund at the National Philanthropic Trust, according to tax filings.
As we often point out at IP, such accounts have no payout or disclosure requirements, unlike foundations. Defenders say DAFs give donors privacy and convenience, and aid cooperation between funders. Yet the downside is a lack of transparency or accountability regarding where the funds are going, or even if they’re being distributed at all. (In this case, given the foundation’s above-minimum payout rate, it seems probable the money sent to DAFs is being moved on.)
While DAFs are gaining popularity, the Singer Foundation is, for now, an outlier within 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, by contrast, is one of the nation’s 10 largest foundation donors to commercial DAFs.
Who’s in charge?
Singer does not sit alone atop his foundation. As of 2020, the operation had four other directors, all with close business and personal ties to the donor. The list included an Elliott Management partner, a former Giuliani fundraiser and veteran Singer advisor, and a longtime friend and lawyer for Singer. The final member is the head of strategic human resources at Elliott and, according to media reports and a lawsuit filed against the firm, has been the billionaire’s romantic partner for roughly a decade. It’s not a group that changes much; those five had been in place since 2013.
The foundation’s staff — five of whom are listed in its 990 forms — are drawn 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 National Republican Senatorial Committee. The current executive director, Daniel Bonner, has spent most of his professional life with the foundation, according to LinkedIn. He joined Singer a year after graduating college and has been with the grantmaker for almost nine years.
Neither of Singer’s sons, Andrew Singer and Gordon Morris-Singer, serve on the board of their father’s foundation. Yet both are directors, along with him, of the separate Paul Singer Family Foundation. It’s a tiny operation by comparison, with just $20 million in assets and annual grantmaking edging towards $1 million, at least as of 2020. In recent years, its grantmaking has consisted of a handful of five- and six-figure awards, often to universities such as Williams College, though VH1’s Save the Music Foundation has also been a regular recipient.
Opaque charitable giving
Singer, like many living donors, keeps a low profile for his philanthropy. He has only a modest website for his foundation — no names, no numbers, no details. The New York Times once reported “he has turned down several invitations to be honored for his philanthropy.”
That’s understandable, perhaps even admirable. But looking at his political giving side-by-side with his charitable giving offers another remarkable example of just how opaque today’s 501(c)(3) donations can be, even compared to the often murky world of electoral politics.
Singer reportedly gave out $24 million in the 2016 election cycle, and he’s contributed roughly $12 million so far this year, according to the Federal Election Commission. Taxpayers did not subsidize any of it and you can find a detailed list of all the recipients online. His foundation’s grantmaking, meanwhile, has averaged $42 million annually in recent years. Unlike those political contributions, it is both tax-advantaged and, because it mostly goes through a DAF, completely anonymous. For all the dark money in politics, it is ironic that in Singer’s case, we know more about his public political donations than his philanthropic ones.
There is likely a rational explanation for why it gives in that manner — such as timing and tax benefits. DAF proponents cite many benefits, including rallying money for collaborative funds, as Blue Meridian Partners once did. And considering how open Singer is about his political leanings, there might not be any big surprises in that DAF’s grants list. If anything, given his many very public investment battles, you’d think he would have no problem airing his philanthropic pursuits. But without disclosure, there’s no way of knowing what’s going on.
Singer is one of the most powerful people in the country. Yet the current rules make it impossible to answer the question of what his philanthropy is supporting. We have some clues, but mostly, it’s a mystery. That’s perfectly legal for now, but should it be?