Meet the Top New Fundraisers in America (Maybe): Barack and Michelle Obama

Bill Clinton had some dark days after he left the White House and was replaced, following a controversial election, by a Republican president.

Clinton soon rallied, though, and went on to build a large nonprofit with global reach and an annual budget of a quarter-billion dollars. All told, he helped raise some $2 billion for the Clinton Foundation. Meanwhile, both he and Hillary made myriad appearances on behalf of other nonprofits, also helping those groups raise large amounts of money.

It’s hard to think of two individuals who’ve raised more money for nonprofit work than the Clintons outside of university presidents.  

Will Barack and Michelle Obama raise even more money—both for their new Obama Foundation and the causes of others?

That’s a good question, and I can only imagine the deluge of invitations that are already bombarding the Obamas from nonprofits who want to leverage their star power for fundraising. Meanwhile, there are surely lots of outgoing requests as the new foundation tries to pull in the big money it needs to accomplish its mission of “developing the next generation of citizens” at a global level. (The Obamas also need to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for a presidential library.) 

While Barack Obama has been a magnet for money since the day he opened his mouth at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, the mission of his new foundation may or may not be a tough sell to big funders—depending on how "promoting citizenship" is framed.  

Much of the $2 billion that Bill Clinton has helped raise has been to save lives, through his foundation’s well-respected work on HIV/AIDS. The Gates Foundation has been its single largest funder over the years, and some national governments, like Australia’s global development agency, have also come in big. The Clinton Foundation’s success in getting things done in Africa and other places also drew in big individual donors like Frank Giustra, interested in alleviating extreme poverty.

But while the Obama Foundation may not be able to offer the compelling metrics that the Clinton Foundation could in terms of lives saved, it may be able to appeal to a very different kind of donor: Democrats who want to win elections.

Citizenship may sound like a warm and fuzzy cause for an ex-president to take up. In fact, it’s been one of the most contested ideas in the American republic, with wide swaths of the population long excluded from the polity. Today, Jim Crow may be gone and women may have the vote, but a great many Americans aren’t activated as citizens. And if everyone really did “show up and engage,” as the Obama Foundation describes it, public policy would probably look very different. That’s all the more likely if structural reforms are enacted to ensure that all voices count, such as ending gerrymandering or getting rid of the electoral college. Already, Barack Obama has signaled that taking on gerrymandering will be one of his first projects as ex-president.

After he left the White House, Bill Clinton reinvented himself as a “man of the world,” as the title of a fascinating recent book on his post-presidency by Joe Conason put it. He mostly put aside his political past to hobnob with the global elite and promote bipartisan humanitarian causes. That profile is a key reason his foundation could raise such big money from the results-oriented Gates Foundation, as well as foreign development agencies.

But ideological combat is another path to fundraising success. If Barack and Michelle Obama come out swinging with their new foundation, offering real hope for empowering those Americans who too often sit out elections or are wrongly disenfranchised—the young, the poor, people of color—big money will come their way. Democrats are tired of waiting for the “new American majority” to materialize someday down the road, while NASCAR voters decide the nation’s fate. If the Obama Foundation offers up hopeful shortcuts to this future, donors large and small will respond—just as they did to Obama the candidate.

On the other hand, if most of the citizenship projects of this new foundation turn out to be a bowl of feel-good civic mush, the Obamas will have a much harder time raising the big bucks. Nobody’s much interested in another thousand points of light.

This will be interesting to watch.