Talking with philanthropist Bill Clinton about the power of giving

Last week, the Clinton Foundation held its second CGI America conference in Denver. Led by former President Bill Clinton, the foundation is one of the most prominent in the world — and among the most controversial.

In a wide array of direct initiatives, the Clinton Foundation brings together businesses, governments, nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, and individuals to work on a variety of issues, including global health and wellness, opportunities for women and girls, economic opportunity in general and helping communities address the effects of climate change.

The foundation’s website reports both its impact and direct responses to criticisms. Although not legally required to do so, it lists all of its donors. The foundation claims more than 300,000 contributors — 90 percent of whom gave $100 or less — and it states that it has improved the lives of 430 million people in more than 180 countries.

During Clinton’s visit to Denver, I had the opportunity to talk with him about the foundation in particular as well as philanthropy in general.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. After two terms as president, you could have done anything. Why did you choose philanthropy?

A: After the life I’ve had, the energy I’ve still got, the people I know and the resources I can redirect, it would be wrong for me to do anything else.

In 1999, Hillary and I hosted the first White House Conference on Philanthropy. Bill Gates got up, and he had just announced shortly before that that he and Melinda were going to give their money away in the Gates Foundation. He said he was afraid it was going to be harder to give it away than it was to make it.

So, I started thinking about it and at the same time, in my second term, I started routinely meeting with leaders of NGOs and civil-society groups in the countries I visited. I realized that in this world of interdependence … I wanted to see if I could still have an impact on things I cared about as president which weren’t solely the province of government.

I thought that being free of public office and free of the demands of daily headlines, I could put people together who could figure out how to solve problems and seize opportunities faster, cheaper and better than they were being addressed at the time.

Q. Are there things you wish you had done differently in the philanthropy part of your career?

A. On balance, I’m very pleased with it. When I started, we had the lowest overhead in the world, and the Charity Navigator and others said we weren’t spending enough on things like human resources, legal, that the compliance environment requires.

I did the right thing to run a very thin, central operation. We did the right thing to let most of our initiatives be self-contained and, whenever possible, self-funded and self-managed. I don’t micromanage now and don’t make many hiring decisions below the very top. I’ve tried to stay out of the details.

I have turned money down when I thought there were conflicts involved. I have refused to go into at least one place where I didn’t like the operating environment because we were being asked to be complicit in something that I didn’t agree with. I’m basically pretty proud of what we’ve done.

What I couldn’t have anticipated is the environment over the last few months.

I’ll give you an example. You may remember that we had been disclosing all along our foreign-government contributions. Quite a lot was made of the fact that Algeria gave us a half a million dollars in 2010 for the Haiti earthquake and that it wasn’t reported. And that’s true.

But there was no context to the story. I took the money because I was the U.N. envoy for Haiti, and it would’ve been irresponsible for me not to do it. I had no idea that Algeria was lobbying the U.S. government for anything, and I doubt very seriously if anybody in the State Department knew that they’d given me any money. But, I didn’t keep it more than a couple of days.

I announced when the Haiti earthquake happened that I’d already been down there working a year and that if people wanted their money to be spent in the most effective way, if they sent it to me, I would take no administrative overhead — something we’ve never done there — and we’d just get it to where it was most needed.

When that money came in, two days after the earthquake, the major hospital was still performing all of its surgery outside under flashlights at night with vodka being used for anesthesia and disinfectant.

If you go back to the way things were at the time, I think what we did was the right thing to do. If I had a crystal ball, I would’ve tried to anticipate what everybody might say if someday Hillary ran for president again, even though they didn’t say it the first time she ran. Ninety percent of the stuff that’s been talked about this time was known about then.

Q. Last week, The New York Times called for greater accountability and transparency in the nonprofit sector, including foundations. What are your thoughts?

A. I think foundation donors should be disclosed. But, again, I favor disclosure. I don’t like those political committees where people can give money and not be disclosed; I don’t agree with that either.

If we’re going to live in a world that the Supreme Court says requires no limits on what wealthy people can give in politics, I think there ought to be full disclosure across the board.

We’ve learned, among other things, in all this back and forth involving our foundation, that Canada has a whole different approach. They say that if you give money, you can’t be disclosed unless you give your personal permission. That’s because they assume that a lot of people like to give money anonymously or privately. They don’t want to take credit for what they’ve done. They don’t want their names on a building. They just want to do good and be anonymous.

It may be that we should have a rule that permits that below a certain amount. But in the world we’re living in today, where there’s so much concern about the intense concentration of wealth and how it’s being invested, I think on balance we’re better off with more disclosure.

Q. What is the responsibility of those people and businesses that have so much in this country to help those who have so little?

A. I think the most important thing is that people can make a difference now more than ever before. All of us in this nongovernmental sector are better than we ever have been at finding ways to create economic opportunities, reduce poverty, increase access to education and health care, and fight climate change. We’re just better at it.

I’m convinced the reason is that there are networks of cooperation, more places where American NGOs like ours are working with people on the ground and other NGOs, governments and philanthropists. Since you can make a difference, you ought to.

In an interdependent world, one of the great battles being fought is between the inclusive NGOs who believe that our common humanity is more important than our differences and the exclusive NGOs, fronted by the terrorist groups, and others who believe our differences are more important than what we share. So it’s an important part of building a secure future across the whole world.

It’s not just the wealthy who should consider participating because ordinary citizens have more power than ever before to affect the course of human events because of crowdfunding websites. Last year here in Denver, the Calvert Foundation and its partners launched Ours to Own to raise money from citizen investors and deploy the capital to community organizations that target neighborhood revitalization or small-business development. And they’re carrying out their commitment.

The (2004 Indian Ocean) tsunami was the first Internet-giving disaster. The American people gave a billion dollars even though they didn’t know where some of those poor countries were on the map. The median contribution was $56. Then when Haiti occurred, it was the first text disaster, so that if you wanted to give money, you could just text in a number. In Haiti, the American people gave a billion dollars again, but this time the median contribution had dropped all the way to $26.

These crowdfunding sites like Crowdrise, Kiva and Calvert have the potential to dramatically alter the landscape of causes like employment, business formation and inequality reduction.

I predict that over the next four to five years, you’ll see more of these crowdfunding platforms actually attracting very large donors to go with the small donors because they see a way to have impact and reduce the inequalities that bedevil the modern world.

Q. What advice do you have for people who want to make a difference?

A. It’s really rewarding. People used to be reluctant to give their money because they didn’t want to waste it. You can really get good information now on all of these foundations; you can know where it’s going.

Nearly everybody can find something really worthwhile to do. There’s this movement in the world that can’t get as many headlines as all the destructive things that are happening — a movement toward building an inclusive capitalism for the 21st century that gives people a more equal share of income but also gives them more equal opportunities.

Nobody should pretend it’s going to be easy, but it’s exciting and it’s clearly possible to make a lot of progress. I would think that more people that have the money to invest would do it because it’s the most rewarding thing you can do with the extra funds that you have.


Bruce DeBoskey, J.D., is a Colorado-based philanthropic strategist working with The DeBoskey Group.