Shut Up About the Clinton Foundation's Problems for a Minute to Look at Its Programs

With all the hype in the media about the Clinton Foundation, we wonder how many Americans, or how many members of the media, for that matter,  actually know what the foundation does. 

Listening to news reports, you'd think the sole purpose of this outfit is to help the Clintons get rich and do favors for their shady friends. And while, to be sure, some of the reports about specific donors have been troublingand suggest questionable judgment by the Clintonswhat's missing is a broader, more balanced look at how the foundation mobilizes money for good causes and who, in reality, puts up most of that money. (Hint: It's not dictators looking for favors from the State Department.) While people shouldn't stop asking hard questions about the foundation, they should pay more attention to its approach and programs. 

In fact, the Clinton Foundation stands as one of the more successful efforts of recent years to mobilize new resources for philanthropy. Since its founding in 2001, it has raised nearly $2 billion, according to an independent review by the Washington Post. Yes, chunks of that money have come from the Clintons' network of political donors and corporate friends, which is how fundraising often works: You hit up the rich people you know for your causes. And, sure, some of them may not have the purest motives for ponying up, especially if you're someone who can return favors later, but that's the nature of the game.

Philanthropic fundraising is more like political fundraising than many may imagine. You think every hedge fund guy who gives big at the Robin Hood's annual gala is solely focused on poor kids in East New York? Or that every tech leader who recently listened to Marc Benioff's pleas and chipped in to fight poverty in the Bay Area has a heart of gold? Or that everyone sitting on MoMA's board is only there because they love art? Come on. 

If you look too closely at how the sausage is made at any large fundraising operation, you probably won't like what you see. And that's all the more true if America's messiest power couple is making the sausage. 

The other missing context here is this: Intermediaries like the Clinton Foundation and donor networks play a growing role in philanthropy, which is generally a good thing. In fact, some think that peer-driven and collaborative efforts to mobilize money is one of the most exciting trends in philanthropy. This approach is particularly popular among women donors, who've built some of the stronger philanthropy networks of recent years.

Meanwhile, another exciting trend in philanthropy—also embodied by the Clinton Foundation—is how funders are creating deeper partnerships with government and business in order to leverage money and have bigger impact.

But a downside of these schmooze-and-fund models, which can have many moving parts—both in terms of where money comes from and where it goes—is that there's more room for conflicts of interest, or the appearance of such, than with a traditional private foundation. 

Overall, you can bash the Clintons for their well-known flaws, but you also have to give them a lot credit for harnessing one of the top power networks in U.S. society for a range of good causes and advancing the state of philanthropy. Bill Clinton may be no saint like Jimmy Carter, but it's a good thing that he didn't decide to focus on oil painting after leaving the White House. 

You'd think everyone would know what the Clinton Foundation's priorities are by now, given the deluge of media attention around the foundation. But most of us probably know more about Sidney Blumenthal's consulting gig than, say, the foundation's work in Africa. Speaking of which, it's not just places like Africa where the foundation works, it's also in various parts of America. 

The latest Clinton Global Initiatives (CGI) America Conference, which was just held in Denver, offers a good snapshot of this part of the foundation's mission. It involved a long list of sponsors, including the Kresge Foundation and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, as well as a number of corporate sponsors including Toyota Motors North America, CH2M, Cheniere Energy, the Coca-Cola Company, Freeport-McMoRan Inc., Noble Energy, APCO Worldwide, and Diageo.

The conference convened more than a thousand leaders from business, foundation, NGO, and government sectors to advance solutions that encourage economic growth, support long-term competitiveness, and increase social mobility in the United States.

As part of this conference, CGI America attendees made 79 new "Commitments to Action"specific and measurable plans for addressing significant challenges. These 79 new actions cover a wide array of policy areas, including access to education and job training, financing for small businesses, clean energy solutions, and more.

So what do some of these new commitments look like? Here's just a taste. A more extensive list of the commitments is available here

Economic Development/Financial Inclusion

Campaign for Every Kid’s Future

Commitment By: Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED)
Partners: National League of Cities, Senator Chris Coons, Utah Education Savings Plan, I Have A Dream Foundation, Kansas University, Washington University in St. Louis, the Harold Alfond Scholarship Fund, Office of Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, Colorado Department of Human Services, City of St. Louis, City of San Francisco

In 2015, CFED and its partners are launching the Campaign for Every Kid’s Future, which will ensure that 1.4 million children have savings set aside for college by the year 2020. CFED will assist local and state agencies in advocating, designing, and raising matching dollars for CSA programs through an online platform. 

Unleashing the Power of One in Three

Commitment By: Association for Enterprise Opportunity; Daria Shehaan
Partners: American Dream Fund; Citi Foundation; Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence; Grameen Foundation; Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Inc.; Mercy Corps; On Deck Capital; Oregon Microenterprise Network (OMEN); Sam's Club; Wal-Mart Corporate Affairs

This partnership will continue building on a successful program started in 2011 that gives more loans to microbusiness owners and entrepreneurs. The new goal is to deploy $10 million in microloans by the end of 2016 with the help of the Sam’s Club Giving Program. 

Environmental and Disaster Relief

Urban Watershed Protection & Restoration in Development

Commitment By: Vulcan Inc.
Partners: Salmon-Safe

This project aligns real estate development in the Puget Sound region with water quality and ecosystem protection. Over the next three years, they are committing to the goal of making all development projects in the Seattle region have net zero impact on the Puget Sound watershed.

Improving Disaster Resilience & Recovery in the US

Commitment By: Toyota; St. Bernard Project (SBP)
Partners: Corporation for Community and National Service (CNCS)

Toyota and its partners are committing to train 140 Americorps members each year in the "Toyota Production System philosophy." The project will also provide post-disaster rebuilding training at no cost to grantees engaged in disaster recovery work. The resulting commitment: 30 communities will be trained to understand and mitigate risk, and a total of 420 AmeriCorps members will receive training from Toyota over the course of this commitment.


Wash Time is Talk Time: Early Literacy Promotion in Laundromats

Commitment By: Coin Laundry Association (CLA); Too Small to Fail 
Partners: Laundry Project; Jumpstart; University of Arkansas; First 5 Alameda County (F5AC);

In 2015, this partnership is committing to help nearly 800 parents engage in talk time with their children, at 5,000 laundromats in underserved communities across the country. This project will create bilingual English and Spanish toolkits and booklets with resources to help parents, laundromat owners, and community volunteers use their time to teach children through talkking, reading, and singing.

Play Time is Talk Time: Early Literacy in Playgrounds

Commitment By: Shane’s Inspiration
Partners: Landscape Structures, Inc. (LSI); Too Small to Fail (TSTF)

Similar to the laundromat idea, this program aims to reach families with playgrounds that are enriched with talking, reading, and singing educational signs and panels that incorporate visuals and messages designed to boost a child’s early brain development by prompting fun, vocabulary-rich conversations, stories, and songs while adults and children play together.

Expanding the Reach of STEM and Creative Writing

Commitment By: YMCA
Partners: Time Warner Cable; 826 National

The goal here is to take 826 National's STEM and Creative Writing curriculum and disseminate it to about 200,000 young people nationwide, for the purpose of helping students become more aware of STEM careers and what the field is really about. 

These new commitments to action are great to see from many of the main players in the philanthropic efforts for the U.S. To learn more about the Clinton Foundation's work, check out its five main areas for grantmaking: