How politics killed a great charity
Long before most governments or international institutions began taking active roles in areas like disaster relief, feeding the poor, housing the homeless or combating health crisis – philanthropic organizations served as the vanguard forces in the effort to support the most vulnerable populations around the world. The triumphs of civil society’s most respected institutions – charities – are many and well documented. Annually, tens of millions people’s lives are touched by the selfless sacrifices made by donors and volunteers working through some of the world’s best charities.
Politics, on the other hand, has long been a dirty game that has sown the seeds of populist resentment and revolution. It’s often been said that the politics and prostitution are the world’s oldest professions; and history has regularly demonstrated that the difference between the two is mostly semantic.
The latest controversial twist in the United States’ presidential election is interesting and distressing precisely because it involves the intersection between appearances of political favoritism by two powerful national political figures and the undeniable charitable work being done by a philanthropy that carries their name. I’m talking, of course, about the unraveling scandal surrounding the Clinton foundation.
Where’s the scandal?
Earlier this week, Judicial Watch, a conservative legal watchdog group, gained permission to release a trove of some 700+ emails to and from close aides of Hillary Clinton. In a few of the emails, the American public was able to see interactions between Clinton Foundation donors and top aides like Huma Abedin – Hillary’s longest serving and closest advisor.
In one exchange, Douglas Band, a top executive at the Clinton Foundation, asked Abedin if she can coordinate a meeting between the Crown Prince of Bahrain and Secretary Clinton. In another, Band asked Abedin if she can assist putting a Nigerian-Lebanese billionaire, who had also donated to the Clinton Foundation, in touch with an expert in Lebanese affairs. Similar request were made by other officials reaching out on behalf of prominent donors like U2 frontman Bono, who requested the name of a contact in NASA in the aims of streaming a concert to the International Space Station.
Whether or not these request were granted, entertained or led to any action seems to be a moot point in the current media environment. Another important, but somehow neglected fact is that Bill and Hillary Clinton have never earned a dollar from their work with the foundation.
The appearance of favoritism implicit in the coverage of such request has fueled Republican assertions that the Clinton Foundation was being used as a sort of extortion mechanism for anyone who wanted favors from Clinton as Secretary of State. Addressing a crowd at a rally in Akron, Ohio, Donald Trump honed in, “No issue better illustrates how corrupt my opponent is than her pay-for-play scandals as secretary of state.”
Any member of the audience at the Trump rally in Akron might be surprised to note that Donald Trump himself has donated $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation. You can even find him on the foundation’s list of contributors. At the same time, Trump has called the Clinton Foundation “”the most corrupt enterprise in political history.” Wouldn’t that make him party to such a corrupt enterprise? The irony runs deep.
These accusations continue to gain traction in the face of zero evidence of any quid-pro-quo. Appearances of conflicts of interest are political gold in an election season where both candidates are racing to disqualify their opponent through character assassination. The validity of the most powerful assertions of criminal action, corruption, favoritism and pay-to-play optics overpowers even the most valiant arguments being made in defense of the Clinton Foundation.
As they say so often in politics, “if you are explaining, you are losing.”
To make matters worse for Team Clinton, the Associated Press released a scathing (and fallacious) analysis illuminating how nearly 55% of the meetings between Hillary Clinton and private individuals not connected to governmental organizations during a two year period of her tenure of Secretary of State were conducted with foundation donors.
What was omitted, of course, is the fact that Hillary met with over 17,000 governmental, civic and business leaders over the course of over 1,700 meetings during her tenure. The AP did make an effort to detail the methodology of their findings, but in the age of soundbites and attack ads, the damage incurred by the headline had already been done.
In response to the growing controversy, Bill Clinton authored a post outlining what steps would be taken related to operational and financial dealings at the Clinton Foundation in the event of a Hillary victory. The foundation, Bill said, would cease accepting donations from foreign governments, foreign individuals, domestic and international corporations, as well as corporate charities. Bill Clinton will absolve himself of any personal involvement in the foundation and relinquish leadership to his daughter Chelsey and the executives already in place.
What appears to be a transition will actually be a death knell. Make no mistake about it, if Hillary Clinton is elected President, the Clinton Foundation will wither and die.
Why does this matter?
Beyond the obvious political implications surrounding the Clinton Foundation, it is important to examine what the Clinton Foundation is and why the campaign is fighting back so virulently to clear its good name, even at the expense of public perception in the middle of an election year.
The Clinton Foundation is a not-for-profit public charity that has been operating since 2001; its mission statement is “To bring people together to take on the biggest challenges of the 21st century.” Over the course of its organizational life, it has collected over $2 billion towards its causes and operates through 11 separate non-profit groups in more than 70 countries.
Unlike many well-known charities, it does not largely funnel donations from its donors to other charities. It’s what’s known as an operating foundation, meaning that it conducts its activities directly through its staff and volunteers much like the Red Cross.
To qualify as an operating foundation, over 85% of donations must be spent on charitable work. Indeed, the Clinton Foundation spends over 87% of its funds on direct action – above and beyond even many of the best charities.
So what good has the foundation done with its billions? Let’s look at some of the numbers and outcomes.
- Lowered the cost of HIV/AIDS medication by 90% for 11.5 million individuals – that’s nearly 50% of the adults and over 60% of the children who currently get treatment for the disease worldwide
- Provided job trainings and entrepreneurship guidance for nearly 500,000 Latin Americans
- Works to improve physical health and nutrition standards with over 31,000 schools, affecting nearly 11 million children in the US
- Aids over 105,000 subsistence farmers in Africa through agricultural training, seed distribution and sustainable water management
- Organized sustainable development initiatives in Haiti resulting in the planting of over 5 million trees
Moreover, charity rating and watchdogs groups have long lauded the effectiveness of the Clinton Foundation. Charity Watch gave the foundation an “A” rating; it received a “Platinum” rating from Guidestar. As reported by CNN, the philanthropic community holds the foundation in very high esteem. Charity Watch President, Daniel Borochoff, went so far as to say that the foundation conducts,”really important, valuable work that saves lives of lots of people.”
Indeed. Even Trump’s newly minted Campaign Manager, Kellyann Conway, conceded, “The Clinton Foundation does a lot of good work and I also want to say that for the record that they do.” This, at the same time that her candidate advocates shutting it down immediately, even given his status as a large private donor.
While it is undeniable that the Clinton Foundation is saving lives and improving living conditions for millions of people, none of those people are American voters. And that is the essence of the issue at hand.
Will the American people look past appearances of pay-to-play favoritism, warranted or not, in an election year widely seen as a referendum on the political class? Will the lives hanging in the balance or the history of the foundation’s humanitarian action be enough to sway the conversation surrounding the charity away from the headline grabbing innuendo that’s made it a political liability for the former first lady? It seems unlikely.
For as much good as the foundation has done for millions and millions of the world’s needy, the political fallout generated by this latest controversy is an existential threat to Hillary’s candidacy. It reinforces the long running corruption narrative. Like all candidates who preceded her, if you presented Clinton with the question, “if you had to choose between the death of your foundation and the survival of your campaign, what would you do?” Her response would immediately be, “I’ll start drafting the eulogy.”
And that’s how politics killed a great charity.