Hope’s Next Act: Who’s Giving Big to the Obama Foundation—And Why?

 Frederic Legrand - COMEO/shutterstock

Frederic Legrand - COMEO/shutterstock

The recent emergence of Barack Obama on the campaign trail is a reminder that he remains a potent figure in American life. While the former president has mostly stayed out of the spotlight since leaving office, it’s always been just a matter of time before Obama resurfaces in a big way to pursue his post-presidential ambitions. He’s only 57 years old, after all.

Much work has been happening behind the scenes, as the Obama Foundation takes shape in Chicago. The foundation’s 2017 annual report, released earlier this summer, lends insight into how one of politics’ most prolific fundraisers is fairing in the philanthropic sector. In the first year of fundraising in earnest, the Obama Foundation raked in nearly $233 million, mostly from individual donors.

It’s not unusual for politics and philanthropy to mix. In fact, it’s becoming more common as wealthy individuals engage on multiple fronts to support the causes they care about. However, the controversies around the Clinton Foundation show how the overlap between politics and philanthropy can become problematic. Bill Clinton’s reputation was damaged by reports of his post-presidential ties to wealthy donors and corporations. Hillary was dogged by charges that the Clinton Foundation was a corrupt “pay to play” operation when she ran for the White House.

As the Obama Foundation raises huge sums of cash, it’s reasonable to wonder what risks that might entail for an ex-president who’s seen as something of a hero for millions of Americans. A larger issue is how this major new institution will fit into the nonprofit and philanthropic landscape. How will it fare over time and how much impact might it have? As it woos major donors and also institutional funders, to what degree is the Obama Foundation competing with other nonprofits—and which ones?

One way to start answering these questions is to look more closely at where the Obama Foundation’s money is coming from and where it’s heading.

Like the Carter Center and Clinton Foundation before it, a big part of the Obama Foundation’s work, especially in its early years, will be raising money for and overseeing the construction of Obama’s presidential library. The Barack Obama Presidential Center is slated to open in 2020 in the South Side of Chicago. In addition to housing the records from Obama’s presidency, a museum and the foundation, the center is intended to be an economic engine and a community resource for the surrounding neighborhood.

In contrast to Carter’s and Clinton’s post-presidency philanthropy, the Obama Foundation has so far announced work that focuses on causes at home in the United States, with a special focus on Chicago for the near future. Both Carter and Clinton took up global health challenges with clearly defined and measurable outcomes.

Through its work, the Carter Center eradicated Guinea worm, a parasite spread through contaminated water that affected 3.5 million people in countries in Africa and Asia when Carter took on the cause in the 1986. The center has now switched gears to focus on river blindness, a disease affecting poor populations in 36 countries across Africa and Latin America. 

The Clinton Foundation set its sights on HIV/AIDS through the Clinton Health Access Initiative, which is technically its own nonprofit, but sits under the Clinton Foundation umbrella. Both presidential foundations have received substantial funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which makes sense, given the Gateses’ focus on global health. And while both of these foundations have been involved in domestic work—for example, through the Clinton Global Initiative America—these efforts have been small compared to the global projects.

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Choosing to focus abroad on public health and disease is a way for former presidents to chart a path above partisan politics in their post-presidential work. Of course, the Clinton Foundation and the controversy it generated in the 2016 presidential election is proof that the strategy doesn’t always work. However, the foundation came under scrutiny less because of the work it took on and more because the perceived conflict of interest in Hillary Clinton’s continued role as a public servant and a person whose name is on a donor-supported foundation.

The Obama Foundation has indicated that it intends to depart from its forerunners to focus on causes closer to home. So far, we know that the foundation will continue supporting My Brother’s Keeper, a philanthropy-backed initiative to empower African American boys and young men that Obama launched in 2014 while he was in office. Helping Chicago’s South Side is another clear mission. Obama has personally donated $2 million to boost job training for young adults in Chicago. 

Other than that, not many details of the foundation’s focus have been made public aside from a promise to focus on civic engagement. In its Twitter bio, the foundation is described as a “start-up for citizenship.” From the information released by the foundation so far, it sounds like much of the work will focus on fostering leadership and encouraging civic engagement, especially among young people and marginalized communities—long a passion for Obama.

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On its face, civic engagement may sound like a fairly uncontroversial cause for a former president, but questions of who does (and doesn’t) participate in public life go directly to who wields power in American politics. And while his foundation’s civic work may sound fairly generic, Obama has become closely involved in the fight against gerrymandering. He starred in a video by an organization created by former Attorney General Eric Holder, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, and he has been raising money for the group, which has big plans to influence the next redistricting following the 2020 Census.  

The Obama Foundation’s domestic civic mission is unlikely to attract the big global health dollars that the Clinton and Carter foundations have pulled in, but has the potential to tap into a different set of donors passionate about advocacy and equity. That could include Democratic donors tired of waiting on demographic shifts to give their party the upper hand, only to be thwarted by low turnout.

So who are the donors giving so far?

The Donors

Of the $233 million raised in 2017, nearly 95 percent came from individuals. The donors who gave at least $1 million to the foundation hail from several industries, but some trends are apparent on the list. Let’s start with the obvious: There are major donors that either have ties to Obama and his administration, or are big supporters of the Democratic Party.

Ann and John Doerr fit that description. John made his money as an investor and venture capitalist. He served on Obama’s President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board following the 2009 financial crisis. Doerr is on the foundation’s board.

In the same vein, Mary and Jeffrey Zients made the list of top donors. Jeffrey held several positions in the administration, including director of the National Economic Council. He’s also credited with spearheading the turnaround of the healthcare.gov website launch.

Robert and Carol Wolf are top donors in a similar mold. The couple’s wealth comes from the private equity firm Robert founded. Robert held several positions in the administration and now serves on the foundation’s board.

Another Obama alumna, Fay Hartog-Levin, the ambassador to the Netherlands under Obama, and her husband joined them. Amy and Kirk Rudy, longtime Obama supporters, also topped the donor list.

Among the top donors are a few people notable for their support of Democrats and liberal causes more generally, though not as many as you might think, given the civic engagement work the foundation seems to be staking out.  

That list includes Stephen Cloobeck, Fed Eychaner and Mel Heifetz. Heifetz is a big supporter of LGBTQ and other liberal causes. Tim Gill, the mega-donor behind the fight for LGBTQ equality is also on the list, along with the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Family Fund, which supports LGBTQ causes.

Jim and Marilyn Simons, long-time mega-givers to the Democratic Party (and big philanthropists, as we often report) are also among the top supporters of the Obama Foundation. Eli Broad is another top Democratic donor, so it’s not surprising to see the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation on the list. Fred Eychaner—who’s given millions to Democratic super PACs in recent year—is here, too.

Given the Obama Foundation’s immediate focus on the presidential center and work in Chicago, it’s not surprising that many of its top funders have ties to the city. The Crown family, which made the list, has deep roots in Chicago, though not all of their giving is focused there. Joe and Rika Mansueto are also among the foundation’s top backers. The couple is based in the city and best known for a $35 million gift to the University of Chicago for the library that bears their name.

The foundation has benefited from several donors who have business ties to the city. The Kenneth C. Griffin Charitable Gift Fund owes its wealth to Citadel LLC, the Chicago-based company Griffin founded. The Linda and Richard Price Family Fund also donated more than $1 million to the foundation. Richard Price is the CEO of Mesirow Financial Holdings in Chicago. Cari and Michael J. Sacks also made the list of the top donors. Michael Sacks I the vice-chairman of World Business Chicago. Much of the couple’s giving focuses on the city.  

John Rogers, who serves as the director of the Obama Foundation, is another individual donor with deep ties to the city. Rogers is the founder and CEO of Ariel Investments LLC. He grew up and still lives in Chicago.  

Several family foundations with ties to Chicago have also stepped up. Among them is the John and Jacolyn Bucksbaum Family Foundation. The funder focuses on early childhood education and civic work in Aspen and Chicago. The Hauptman Family Foundation is another major donor. Its giving centers on Chicago and Los Angeles, where the couple behind the foundation has ties. The Steans Family Foundation, another family fund on the list, is based in and focuses most of its giving in the Windy City.

The Pritzker Traubert Foundation is also on that list. If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because there are quite a few Pritzkers out there and many of them are active in philanthropy, with much of their giving focused on Chicago. The family’s wealth comes from the Hyatt hotel chain. Penny Pritzker and her husband Bryan Traubert conduct their giving through the Pritzker Traubert Foundation. The couple’s foundation gives to education, health and the arts, with an emphasis on Chicago. Chicago isn’t Pritzker’s only connection to the Obama Foundation, though. She served as the U.S. Commerce Secretary during the Obama Administration, and before that, served as the national finance chair of Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

Related: So Many Pritzkers, So Much Philanthropy: Meet This Top Family of Givers

Going down the list of top donors, another trend emerges. Many of the top givers hail from Hollywood, which is perhaps unsurprising given the industry’s affinity for the Obamas while they were in the White House.

The philanthropic outfits of some of the biggest names in the business, like J.J. Abrams and his wife, Katie McGrath, George Lucas, Shonda Rhimes and Oprah Winfrey, top the list of the foundation’s donors. Winfrey was one of former President Obama’s earliest endorsers back in 2006, before he even announced his candidacy. Abrams and McGrath each donated $125,000 in 2017 to the redistricting initiative backed by Obama and led by Eric Holder Jr., his former attorney general. They were also vocal and generous supporters of Clinton’s 2016 presidential run.

Robert Iger, Disney’s chairman and CEO, also made the list of the foundation’s biggest donors. Iger, who was registered as a Democrat until recently, is rumored to be mulling over a presidential run himself.

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A number of donors with ties to tech also made the list, including Lynne and Marc Benioff, Michelle Yee and Reid Hoffman, and Evan Williams and Sara Morishige. Benioff is the founder and CEO of Salesforce, where he’s pushed a business model that prioritizes corporate giving. He and his wife also give as private individuals. Hoffman co-founded LinkedIn. Williams co-founded Twitter.

It’s hard to say motivates these varied donors. Some may just be continuing their support for a public figure they deeply admire; others may want access to Obama’s still-powerful political network with an eye to advancing specific agendas.

Institutional Philanthropy

Corporate and institutional philanthropy accounted for a small portion—only about 5 percent, just under $12 million—of the $233 million donated in 2017. It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, since the foundation is still so young. There’s a lot of pressure to raise money for the presidential library, and very little of its long-term philanthropic work has been defined. Still, it’s worth taking a quick look at some of the foundations that signed on this early in the game.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made the list of donors that gave at least $1 million last year. The foundation is a big backer behind the Clinton and Carter foundations, as mentioned above. Those foundations align well with the Gates Foundation’s focus on global health. It’s less clear what the overlap is here.

The Ford Foundation is also on the list. The foundation’s strategy focuses on economic mobility for families. Obama’s donation to workforce development and his foundation’s intention to make the presidential center an economic driver in the South Side fit with that ethos.

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation also donated at least a $1 million to the former president’s foundation. The community foundation is a donor-advised community fund with several well-known and deep-pocketed tech donors, including Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz, Reed Hastings and Jack Dorsey. The Obama Foundation’s popularity among individual donors from the tech community could explain what the community funder based in northern California is doing on the top donor list for the Chicago-based foundation.

A couple of foundations with strong ties to backing equity and advocacy work also made the list. The Joyce Foundation is based in Chicago, and is a big mover in the circle of funders that fund civic causes. The foundation’s five main areas of investment—education and economic mobility, environment, gun violence prevention and justice reform, democracy and culture—dovetail with what seem to be the Obama Foundation’s long-term interests.

The California Endowment, a public health funder focused mostly on work in its home state, also made the cut. Though the endowment considers itself a public health funder, it follows a broad interpretation of that mission. The funder’s past grants have supported advocacy work, racial equity, criminal justice reform, immigrants at risk of deportation and getting out the count for the next census.

Of course, it’s still very early in the game for the Obama Foundation. It’s off to a promising start with the $233 million it raised in 2017, but stay tuned for new donors as the direction of its programmatic work becomes clearer.

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