"Once a year I would go to a luncheon where he dispensed the checks."

Like many who received the money, Zeichner said he was shocked by the recording released last week. He said it crystallized his feeling that the foundation's giving was intended to boost Sterling's image.

"We were a bit of a beard for him." he said. "Clearly those ads are about letting people know he is a good guy."

Schield, the foundation's chief financial officer, said the charity did not pay for the newspaper ads and had nothing to do with their content.

"I can't comment on those," he said.

The Times' Sullivan declined to provide details about the ads, saying it was company policy not to disclose information about advertisers.

It's difficult to determine definitively how much Sterling has given to charities overall. It is possible that Sterling has made charitable contributions as an individual — rather than through his foundation — that would not appear in the foundation's public tax filings.

Schield said he assumes that Sterling has made personal donations to charities and has given money over the years to the separate Los Angeles Clippers Foundation.

He cited as one example of Sterling's personal philanthropy a $425,000 donation in 2013 to UCLA for kidney research. The university said it was to be the first installment of a $3-million pledge to be paid over seven years. UCLA returned the money and canceled the pledge after the furor erupted over Sterling's recorded comments.

But it was the work of the foundation that Sterling heavily promoted.

Schield said the organization has yet to file its 2013 tax return but believed it would show an increase in giving over previous years.

Some of the Sterling foundation ads from 2012 said the group was committed to making $10 million in donations.

More recently, ads have said the foundation was committed to spending $17 million. Other ads listed the total as $20 million.

It is possible the larger sums reflect, at least in part, pledges of future giving as well as donations actually made. Zeichner said that in the case of his children's charity, the foundation appeared to count the entire commitment — $10,000 a year for 10 years — as one lump sum for publicity purposes, even though only a fraction of that has been disbursed.

Sterling's now-abandoned interest in funding a skid row homeless center reflects both the pomp and the uncertainty that surrounds his charitable activities.

About six years ago, newspaper ads started appearing saying that Sterling wanted to build a homeless center in downtown Los Angeles. Andy Bales, chief executive officer of the Union Rescue Mission, said Sterling talked to skid row nonprofits about helping him raise $50 million for a Donald Sterling Homeless Center. Bales and other officials on skid row thought the idea unrealistic, and Sterling eventually dropped it.

Still, Bales said, his organization appreciates the money it has received from the Sterling foundation — $20,000 through 2012, according to tax records.

"We keep doing good with whatever revenue we get from sometimes imperfect people," Bales added. He said he was disturbed by Sterling's comments but "we wouldn't want to rob Mr. Sterling of the good he has done in the past."

The foundation's latest tax return says its officers are Sterling, his wife Rochelle, Schield and lawyer Douglas Walton. In some of the ads, V. Stiviano, the woman whose audio recording set off the scandal, is identified in photo captions as a member of the foundation. In others, she's identified as a representative of Catholic Charities or Our Lady of Angels.

The Clippers have a separate foundation that was incorporated in 1994. Sterling's involvement with it could not be determined from its tax filings, but his foundation gave it $10,000 in 2009.

In fiscal 2011-12, the Clippers foundation had net assets of nearly $1.2 million and spent about $633,000 on its charitable programs, including grants to groups such as Feed the Children Inc. and the Special Olympics of Southern California, according to its most recently available tax return.

It's run by a board made up of Clippers employees, according to tax records. In some of the ads for the Malibu youth camp, the Clippers foundation is listed as a co-sponsor.

Charity watchdogs say Sterling's penchant for advertising his philanthropic efforts is unusual.

"He is somewhat unique in how much he's bragging about his philanthropy," said Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, an online evaluator of nonprofit groups. "He's shouting from the rooftops, 'Look how generous I am!' "

paul.pringle@latimes.com

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

angel.jennings@latimes.com

Times staff writers Richard Winton, Nathan Fenno, Larry Gordon and Ryan Menezes contributed to this report.