The Clinton Foundation

The Clintons are a polarizing family. After being in the spotlight for over thirty years, one is sure to rack up a litany of controversial "scandals". With such a complicated past, it can be hard to see through a lot of the muck in order to figure out what exactly is true. We can be sure that the Clintons are not the maniacal family that a lot of right-wing and more recently left-wing conspiracy theorists make them out to be, but at the same time, with such a long public history, there are going to be some skeletons in the closet. 

I'm not here to dig up old dirt. I want to focus on one pivotal piece of the Clinton Saga that has garnered a huge amount of attention, especially during Hillary's tenure as Secretary of State and her recent presidential campaign. 

The Clinton Foundation.

Not be confused with the Clinton Family Foundation, which is a much smaller private organization that is geared more towards the Clinton family's private giving. The Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation is the Clinton family's public vehicle for charitable fundraising.  

The Clinton Foundation, then named the William J. Clinton Foundation, was founded in 1997 by former president Bill Clinton as a small 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, with the focus of fundraising for the Clinton Presidential Center that would be built in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Foundation really took off after Bill left office though having raised, according to a review by the Washington Post, an estimated $2.0 billion from corporate titans, world governments, celebrities, and other wealthy donors since 2001. To quote the Washington Post

In the middle of it all is Bill Clinton, a new kind of post-presidential celebrity: a convener who wrangles rich people’s money for poor people’s problems. In the process, the foundation elevates the wealthy by giving them entree to one of the nation’s most prominent political families.

There was never any master plan for the foundation though. It grew out of an amalgam of interests originating from Bill and his wealthy friends. The Clinton Foundation does engage in grant-work but most of the Clinton Foundation's charitable work is done in-house through a variety of programs and affiliated companies. The short list of programs includes: 

  • The Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI)
    • "The Clinton Health Access Initiative, Inc. (CHAI) was founded in 2002 with a transformational goal: help save the lives of millions of people living with HIV/AIDS in the developing world by dramatically scaling up antiretroviral treatment."
  • The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI)
    • "Established in 2005 by President Bill Clinton, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), an initiative of the Clinton Foundation, convenes global leaders to create and implement innovative solutions to the world's most pressing challenges." 
  • The Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI)
    • "Building on President Clinton’s longstanding commitment to the environment, the Clinton Climate Initiative develops scalable projects that can be tailored to local conditions while also serving as innovative models for tackling global climate change. This approach helps provide real-world demonstrations of how we can cut emissions while compressing the timeframe for delivering real progress."
  • The Clinton Development Initiative (CDI)
    • "CDI's mission is to catalyze economic empowerment through agribusiness development. With access to high-quality inputs, agronomic knowledge and markets, more than 150,000 farmers in Malawi, Rwanda, and Tanzania are increasing their yields and incomes."
  • Disaster Relief
    • "The Foundation has funded extensive disaster relief programs following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit, President George W. Bush asked former Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton to raise funds to help rebuild the Gulf Coast region. The two Presidents, having worked together to assist victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, established the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund to identify and meet the unmet needs in the region, foster economic opportunity, and to improve the quality of life of those affected. In the first month after the hurricane, the Fund collected over 42,000 online donations alone; approximately $128.4 million has been received to date from all 50 states and $30.9 million from foreign countries. The foundation has been involved in Haiti both before and after the 2010 Haiti earthquake with mixed results." 
  • No Ceilings Project
    • "Advancing the status of girls and women remains the unfinished business of our time. In 1995, at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, 189 nations agreed to an ambitious Platform for Action that called for the 'full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life.' At this conference, Secretary Clinton memorably declared that 'human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.'"

This is all to say that the Clinton Foundation has become a massive organization built upon the spider web of connections parlayed by the Clinton family. In recent years, the Foundation has come under scrutiny due to Hillary Clinton's high profile political aspirations. A few questions have come to the forefront of the political climate surrounding this family.

1). How have the Clintons kept their political dealings separate from their dealings on behalf of the Foundation?

There have been obvious public attempts by the Clinton Foundation to mitigate the conflicts of interest that might arise for the Clinton family. There have also been some situations that have crept by that don't appear great though. The Clinton Foundation, in 2008, struck a deal with the Obama administration outlining how it would attempt to avoid various conflicts of interest while still being able to continue its philanthropic work during Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State. The deal involved a pledge made by Hillary Clinton and a memorandum of understanding signed by representatives of both parties. 

One aspect of the agreement included halting all donations from foreign entities except from those which have already donated to the Foundation. Those donations would be allowed to continue as long as the size of their donations didn't increase. The State Department would have to approve all further donations from foreign governments.  Another aspect included annually posting all of the Foundation and its affiliates' donors to their respective websites for the duration of Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State. Finally, the Clinton Global Initiative would be spun off as its own separate entity. 

Now despite the Clinton camp's insistence, there were some notable slip ups by the Foundation with regard to following the deal struck with the Obama administration. Important ones included not reporting to the State Department a $500,000 donation by the Algerian Government that was marked for aide to Haiti in 2010. It was also reported that over 1,100 undisclosed donors funneled over $2.35 million through the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative to the Clinton Foundation. The Foundation also didn't notify the State Department nor update its public list of donors to CHAI, which included donations from five new countries and donation increases from two countries. Finally, some State Department emails have been made public recently highlighting a number of conversations between top management at the Foundation and Clinton's top aides at the State Department that have implied an intimate relationship between the State Department and the Foundation.  

The Foundation admits that its lack of disclosing the Algerian donation to the State Department was an oversight. CHAI also admits that not disclosing or updating its donor list since 2010 was a oversight and has since in 2015 posted a partial list of donors. Maura Daley, a spokeswoman for CHAI, provided a list of reasons why CHAI did not disclose or submit for review donations by various foreign governments during that time. Reuters goes into more detail about it here. Finally, the emails highlighted by Judicial Watch do reveal top aides at the Foundation asking for certain things on behalf of Foundation donors, but there is never any proof that the State Department followed up on anything asked of them by representatives from the Foundation. 

In 2015, the New York Times outlined a uranium deal that was approved by the State Department. The Russian atomic agency, Rosatom, made three payments from 2009 to 2013 to assume control of a Canadian mining company that would eventually come to be known as Uranium One. This would give the Russians one-fifth control over production of Uranium in the United States. Back then, the political climate was very different, and apparently promises were made by both the United States government and the Russian government to ease onlookers concerns. Simultaneously to this deal being made, a number of investors and board members of Uranium One including Frank Giustra made sizable donations to the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative, a Canadian charity, which as we now know funneled money to the Clinton Foundation. 

This is all questionable, but under more scrutiny there is no proof of any misconduct. There is no evidence that Hillary Clinton had any role in approving or even participating in the deal. Also, the uranium deal didn't just need approval from the State Department, but also from nine other government agencies including the Canadian government. Finally, the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative is bound by Canadian law, which prevents it from disclosing its donors; therefore, the Clinton Foundation technically didn't violate the agreement it made with the Obama administration in this particular case. The Clinton Foundation did name the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative as a donor but was unable to name the rest due to Canadian law. 

All of this is to say, that while there have been some mistakes and a few precarious dealings, there is still no evidence of quid pro quo on the part of Hillary Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State. 

Following Hillary Clinton's time at the State Department and now, in the wake  of her potential presidency, Bill Clinton has made assurances of changes to the Foundation that would occur should Hillary Clinton become president. These include him stepping down from the Foundation's Board of Directors and immediately halting all fundraising on his part. The Foundation would immediately halt acceptance of all foreign donations. Donations would only be limited to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and U.S-based independent foundations. It would transition much of its international work to foundations that are not so closely linked to governments in those respective regions. Finally, the Clinton Global Initiative would no longer continue its annual meetings. 

Several critics of the Clinton Foundation have called for it cease operations should Hillary Clinton become president. Bill Clinton seems adamant that a way forward for the Foundation would be possible and absolutely necessary due to the large amounts of people that receive aide from the Foundation. 

2). How effective has the Clinton Foundation been as a charity?

It would be impossible to fully cover the variety of critiques that have been lobbed against the Clinton Foundation involving its efficacy as a charitable organization, but I will attempt to hit all the major ones. Major critiques include everything from the Clintons using the Foundation as their personal slush fund to pocketing money that was meant for disaster relief to the Foundation only utilizing 8% of its revenue towards charitable giving. 

First, the Clinton Foundation does only give about 8% of its revenue towards charitable grants, BUT most of its charitable work is done in-house through the Foundation's own programs and affiliate programs that I outlined in the beginning of this article. The Clinton Foundation was reviewed by two highly respected impartial charity-reviewers: Charity Navigator and Charity Watch. They both gave the Clinton Foundation an "A"-rating, citing that the Foundation goes above and beyond normal giving; in that, around 88% of its revenue goes towards charitable work whether it's through grants or its own in-house work. Also, Charity Navigator did indeed put the Clinton Foundation on a watch list but to quote their own website, 

Charity Navigator: We had previously evaluated this organization, but have since determined that this charity’s atypical business model can not be accurately captured in our current rating methodology. Our removal of The Clinton Foundation from our site is neither a condemnation nor an endorsement of this charity. We reserve the right to reinstate a rating for The Clinton Foundation as soon as we identify a rating methodology that appropriately captures its business model.

What does it mean that this organization isn’t rated?

"It simply means that the organization doesn’t meet our criteria. A lack of a rating does not indicate a positive or negative assessment by Charity Navigator."

This false talking point of 8% leads to critics pointing out that the Foundation spends about 7% of its income on travel expenses and around 20% of its revenue on salaries. This looks suspicious when one only compares these numbers to the 8% of revenue towards charitable grants quoted above, but if you compare it to the 88% of charitable work in total, it falls completely in line with other comparable charities. 

Second, there is absolutely no evidence of the Clinton's using the foundation as their personal slush fund. While Bill and Hillary have both sat on the board of directors for the Foundation, neither have ever taken a salary. They have received paid-for travel by the Clinton Foundation from time to time, but that was only when they were traveling on official Foundation business. There have been criticisms of the Clintons making money after their respective tenures as public officials from the Foundation, but as far as I can tell, there is no bearing to those claims. Bill and Hillary did receive a number of sizable speaking fees over the past decade for delivering speeches to a wide variety of clients, but there was nothing as far as I can tell related to the Foundation.

Some critics point to a couple of the numbers quoted above for travel expense and salaries as red flags. It isn't unreasonable for a global charity to cover the travel of its representatives, especially when they are engaging in charitable work. It's also not unreasonable that a sprawling organization like the Clinton Foundation that is said to employ over 2000 people worldwide to pay those workers for their work. Large charities can't rely on volunteers alone. 

Other critics point to the Foundation's disaster relief work, which in all fairness is probably its weakest point. The Clinton Foundation and Bill Clinton himself was the face of relief work for Haiti after the major earthquake in 2010 that killed over 200,000 people. The Clinton Foundation partnered with numerous other agencies including the Red Cross, the United Nations, and the U.S. State Department to raise money for disaster relief in Haiti. 

The effects of relief-aid for Haiti are nebulous at best. There have definitely been some successes including efforts to help over 2,000 farmers improve their crop yield, a fish-farming operation, and a cholera treatment center. There have been failures as well though such as a $2 million housing development that has provided far less housing than originally anticipated, and a 120$ million worth of development of Caracol Industrial Park that has come in way under expectation for providing jobs to Haiti's poor. 

There is some frustration on the part of the Haitians In 2015, Haitian activists protested outside the Clinton Foundation in New York, claiming the Clintons mismanaged hundreds of millions in taxpayer money through the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission. Several other prominent Haitians have since spoken out against the Clinton's work in Haiti. 

In all fairness, it is important to note that while Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation were instrumental and by far the most visible entities doing work in Haiti for the past five years since the earthquake, they were definitely not the only entities donating and doing charitable work in the country. 

This great WaPo article outlines more about the current climate in Haiti. It is clear though that while the Foundation as done some good work in Haiti there were also quite a few failures.

The Clinton Foundation has seen more success on other fronts though. CHAI, the Clinton Health Access Initiative, has been instrumental in getting low-cost HIV/AID treatments to over 9 million people. The Clinton Development Initiative has given 150,000 farmers in Malawi, Rwanda, and Tanzania access to high-quality inputs, agronomic knowledge and markets, that have more than increased their yields and incomes. 

Now, there is no question that the Foundation excels at fundraising, utilizing it's world-class status to mobilize the rich and famous. To remind you, the Clinton Foundation has raised over $2 billion in donations since 2001, but how effective has that money been? Well, the answer is complicated and often a mixed-bag. It's hard to get a clear neutral answer and, especially due to the Clinton Foundation's size, can be hard to assess, but I hope I've given at least an overview of the effectiveness of the Clinton Foundation.