Ex-President, New Philanthropist: A First Look at Obama Giving

Around this time last year, Bill and Hillary Clinton were under constant fire from critics of the Clinton Foundation, who charged that it was a shady enterprise driven by the former first couple's insatiable thirst for money and power. What almost nobody talked about at the time was the fact that the Clintons also had their own family foundation, through which they'd personally given nearly $15 million between 2007 and 2014—more than 10 percent of their income for this period. 

RelatedThe Other Clinton Foundation: A Look at Bill and Hillary's Personal Philanthropy

Now, another ex-first couple, Barack and Michelle Obama, are getting started on a lucrative post-presidential career that's slated to bring in at least $60 million from book deals alone. Even if Obama turns down more paid speeches, like the $400,000 gig that attracted so much controversy recently, the couple is going to be plenty rich. 

So it comes as no surprise that they're already giving away some of their wealth.

Like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama has chosen to create a philanthropic operation as the platform for his post-presidential career. At the moment, the Obama Foundation is mostly focused on the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) on Chicago’s South Side. Obama says he hopes the 200,000 square-foot campus will be a hub for local economic and community development, not just a tribute to his eight years in the White House.

The Obama Foundation is now busily raising funds from outside donors. But Barack and Michelle are also putting up some of their own money for its work.  Earlier this month, Barack unveiled preliminary plans for the complex to be built over the next four years in the South Side’s Jackson Park. At the same time, he announced $2 million in personal gifts to boost Chicago employment outcomes. Obama and his family maintained close associations with south Chicago throughout his presidency, including a residence there.

Jobs, especially for local youth, are a major component of the social outcomes Obama wants to achieve through his center. A key goal, here, is to hire local people from the area to both build and staff the operation. Of the Obamas' $2 million gift this month, half is going to One Summer Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s summer jobs program. Another million funds the Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance, a local affiliate of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions. The second gift will fund pathways into the building trades, especially for young adults. 

Obama said such training was important if his presidential center was going to be able to hire locally. "We want to make sure that some of those young people can get trained so people don't say, 'Why didn't you hire anybody from the neighborhood?' And the contractor says, 'We didn't have anybody who was trained.' Well ... let's start the pipeline now, so that we can start getting some of those folks trained," Obama said.

One Summer Chicago mostly depends on public funding. But about $10 million of its yearly budget comes from foundations and corporations. The McCormick Foundation leads fundraising efforts in partnership with the city. Other supporters include Citigroup, Union Pacific and the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund. 

The Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance brings together local funding leaders like McCormick, the Joyce Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, Woods Fund Chicago, the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, the Grand Victoria Foundation, and the Polk Brothers Foundation. It pursues some of the latest strategies in funder-driven workforce development, like apprenticeship programs, partnerships with employers, and research. 

As we report often, a lot of recent funding is directed toward creating new employment opportunities for young people in urban areas, with a growing stream of corporate money flowing into this area, especially from large banks like JPMorgan Chase. With his enormous stature, Barack Obama is well positioned to attract some these funds to Chicago's South Side.

Still, workforce development has always been a tough challenge for philanthropy, and Obama's focus in this area is not without risks in terms of demonstrating concrete impact a few years from now. Obama's other main focus area, strengthening U.S. democracy, also doesn't lend itself to easy wins. 

By contrast, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter mainly focused their post-presidential charitable work on global health issues, where their efforts could produce dramatic and tangible results.