What's Donald Rumsfeld Doing These Days? He's a Philanthropist, Of Course

Say the name “Donald Rumsfeld,” and most people will think of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the former defense secretary and his wife, Joyce Rumsfeld, have made names for themselves in peaceful humanitarian ventures, as well. Since the 1980s, the couple have been investing in national anti-poverty outreach and international economic and political development through two foundations: the Joyce and Donald Rumsfeld Foundation, which they established in 1985; and the Rumsfeld Foundation, which they launched in 2007. 

Donald Rumsfeld is best known for his career in governmentfirst as a member of Congress, then as part of the White House staff under Nixon, and finally in the George W. Bush administration. But Rumsfeld was also very successful in business, serving as the CEO of two corporations, as well as chairman of biotech company Gilead Sciences. Rumsfeld seems to have made the biggest chunk of his money through Gilead stock. And while his net worth is unknown, it's large enough for the Rumsfelds to become active philanthropists through their two foundations. 

The Rumsfelds have supported a whole range of charitable causes through the Joyce and Donald Rumsfeld Foundation: public parks, cultural events, health initiatives and youth education, to name a few. They launched the Rumsfeld Foundation, by contrast, with a more narrowly focused mission. That mission has come to encompass four program areas, two of which we'll look into here: Microfinance and Central Asia (aid for U.S. veterans and fellowships for U.S. college students are the two others).

Microfinance—awarding small loans or grants to individuals so that they can start new businesses or expand recently established ones—appeals to the Rumsfelds as a way to deliver funds directly to people without going through their governments. As Rumsfeld told Philanthropy Roundtable in a summer 2015 interview, he trusts private citizens much more than he does government agencies to spend aid money honestly and effectively.

“I watched governments do development programs where many poor countries had corrupt officials, so I always worried about going through a governmental structure. I was attracted to the idea of going directly to individuals. Microfinance does that,” he said. (Could Rumsfeld have been referring to the many billions of dollars in U.S. war reconstruction aid that disappeared in Iraq and Afghanistan, with little to show for it? Maybe.)

His foundation has paid out nearly $3.5 million since its inception. That includes, over the last four years, a sum total $75,000 to Acction International, a U.S.-based microfinance organization; and $200,000 to microfinancing giant Grameen Foundation. It's also given $325,000 in that same four-year span to FINCA International, a nonprofit that that provides impoverished adults with a broad array of financial services, ranging from savings account programs to entrepreneurial loans and financial literacy education. Almost all of these grants are unrestricted gifts.

Rumsfeld's microfinancing beneficiaries can be situated just about anywhere on Earth. But the foundation's second program area of interest, Central Asia, concerns itself with residents of Afghanistan, Mongolia, and the former Soviet states Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. This program's giving isn't really a grant program per se, but a scholarship opportunity. It partners with Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies to host an annual Central Asia-Caucasus Young Leaders Fellowship Program, which pays for students from the countries listed above to visit the Johns Hopkins campus for six weeks, meet U.S. officials, and study U.S. politics, history and culture. The hope is that these students will gain knowledge and insight to become successful political reformers and economic changemakers when they return to their home countries.

Central Asia's nations—many of which struggle with authoritarian rule—are a personal interest for Rumsfeld, and this is a part of the world that attracts the attention of few other funders. (The Open Society Foundations also pay attention to these nations.)

“I grew up in Chicago around folks with relatives in countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia coming out from under communism. As those countries made their transition to freedom, they were connected to a lot of people in the United States who were very friendly and helpful,” he told Philanthropy Roundtable. “I thought it would be useful if we did something in the five Central Asian countries (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan), the three South Caucasus countries (Georgia, Armenia, ­Azerbaijan), and Afghanistan and Mongolia.”

Donald Rumsfeld is a controversial figure nowadays due to the U.S. involvement in Iraq, and will probably remain so. But the Rumsfeld Foundation's ongoing giving ensures that the ongoing turmoil of post-Saddam Iraq will not be Rumsfeld's only lasting legacy.