The Clinton Foundation is preparing to scale back operations and hand off nearly all the ongoing programs that make up the organization’s work around the world, following a months-long internal effort to plan for Hillary Clinton’s possible election.
Bill Clinton gathered the foundation staff at his Midtown office early last Thursday night to deliver the news in person: “We have to do what all of us have to do, which is the right thing at any given moment in time. And this is the right thing to do I think."
The former president, along with foundation vice chair Chelsea Clinton, who joined by phone, outlined plans underway to find new homes for existing programs, speaking at points in deeply personal terms about his work for the last 15 years, according to an account of the 30-minute meeting, provided by a participant.
They also informed staffers that the foundation would no longer accept foreign and corporate donations if Hillary Clinton is elected, and that Bill Clinton would plan to step down from the board — news the Associated Press broke later that night.
But the plans to transition the organization’s dozens of programs would go further, fundamentally transforming the Clinton Foundation as it’s known today — vast and with people across the globe — into an enterprise far smaller in size and scope.
The changes are the outcome of an intensive effort that began in February, led by Bill and Chelsea Clinton, to identify and address potential conflicts of interest, including the programs that receive funding from corporate donors, Wall Street, foreign governments, and other interests with a stake in politics and policy, according to foundation officials who outlined the months-long process.
Should Hillary Clinton win this fall, the foundation will work to find other like-minded charities and entities that can fully absorb the organization's programs, an array of domestic and international projects on the ground, powered by partnerships between business, government, and nonprofits. Other parts of the foundation's work may also be spun off into independent organizations, officials said.
The objective is for as much of the foundation's work as possible to continue as is elsewhere, facilitating a transition that’s seamless for the programs’ beneficiaries.
But the foundation itself expects to retain only a small amount of the programs, which are housed across 11 central "initiatives" and include efforts to help cashew farmers in India, facilitate agribusiness in Rwanda, train fisherman in Colombia, support handicraft artists in Haiti, create health awareness in the Coachella Valley, and provide access to lifesaving vaccines in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Malawi.
Regardless of the election outcome, officials said, this year will also be the last for the Clinton Global Initiative, whose annual meeting in New York has been the marquee event and spotlight for the foundation's public-private partnerships. Some staffers have been told to prepare for their jobs to end at the close of the year, after next month’s final meeting, according to a person close to the organization.
For Clinton, who turned 70 on Friday, the transition marks a significant close to the 15-year period he spent building his foundation. On Thursday evening, thanking members of the staff, he described the work as the great joy of his career.
"I’ve done a lot of interesting things in my life, and I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that I’ve loved this much as this foundation," Clinton said, addressing the crowd of 200 staffers in the “Hub,” the common area in the foundation offices, with other members of the staff dialing in from countries around the world.
“This is like a root canal for me,” Clinton said.
The foundation’s long-term planning has already set off changes small and large across the organization — from ending its involvement earlier this year in a charity golf tournament, to reviewing the programs on the ground, to shuttering CGI.
Clinton has said for months that the foundation would undergo changes if his wife became president. But not until the last week has the full scope of the plans been made clear. The February effort led by the two Clintons, working with the foundation's leadership team, was designed to take direct and early aim at the issues of transparency and influence that have dogged the organization.
In 2009, when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, the foundation entered into an agreement with the Obama administration that either limited or barred foundation entities from accepting foreign government donations, and stipulated that the foundation must disclose donors each year. Reporting has shown that in a handful of instances the foundation still accepted foreign donations, one in apparent violation of the ethics agreement. And despite the agreement, after 2010, the Clinton Health Access Initiative, spun off that year into a separate affiliated initiative, did not disclose its donors while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.
Some donations have raised questions about influence, like a series of gifts and a speaking fee paid to Bill Clinton around the time that Uranium One, a powerful mining company, was sold to Russian business interests. Frank Giustra, a Canadian billionaire, has donated more than $100 million to the foundation and was invested in one of the firms connected to the deal, though he sold his stake in 2007. (The overall sale, finalized in 2013, required State sign off, but there has been no evidence that foundation donations played a role in that approval.)
Officials said that that the prospect of Clinton becoming president, rather than a cabinet official, necessitated a stricter approach for the foundation, as there would be no higher office to facilitate conflict of interest guidelines or field concerns.
Throughout the review that began in February, Chelsea Clinton played a key role in keeping the process on course, officials said, describing constant contact with the former president about the planning, and ensuring each initiative's operations were being addressed.
Also involved in the process was foundation president Donna Shalala, senior vice president of programs Maura Pally, COO Kevin Thurm, and board chairman Bruce Lindsey, as well as the chiefs of staff to Bill and Chelsea Clinton, Tina Flournoy and Bari Lurie, respectively.
Chelsea Clinton, 36, will retain her place on the board regardless of the election outcome, a spokesperson said, enabling her to help see through the changes.
Most of the entities that could absorb the foundation's programs — described internally as “partner organizations” — will be other charities, officials said. But the programs could also be transferred to foreign governments: The government in Kenya, the foundation’s partner on a data-measurement program to track the country's land-based emissions, took over the effort this summer. (The program was partially funded by the Australian government, foundation officials said.)
Other programs will spin off into self-sustaining organizations.
One of the foundation’s 11 initiatives, co-founded by Giustra, the Canadian billionaire, announced plans this month to operate independently if Hillary Clinton wins, sustaining eight programs in El Salvador, Colombia, and other countries.
It’s possible that programs funded by domestic independent foundations could remain active inside the foundation, officials said. The Clinton Health Matters Initiative, which runs health awareness programs in places across the US like Arkansas and Mississippi, could be one of the foundation’s ongoing projects.
The Clinton Presidential Library, technically one of the foundation’s initiatives, will remain a central part of the former president’s work. Before it became a sprawling network of global partnerships, the Clinton Foundation began in 1997 as a way to raise money for the library.
Officials say it’s still not certain what components of the global philanthropic effort will remain operational inside the foundation, citing an ongoing process that still hangs on what happens this fall.
Still, next month’s CGI meeting in New York, the 12th, will put Bill Clinton for the last time on a stage that became the home for his post-presidency — where talk about wind turbines in Central America and drought-resistant seeds in Africa, is mixed with celebrities, world leaders, and panels on “Mobilizing For Impact” (2013), “Reimagining Impact” (2014), and “The Future of Impact” (2015).
For admirers, the meetings reflect the Clintons’ unique “power to convene.”
(To, as Hillary Clinton described it in an interview last year, serve in politics as “a catalyst, as a convener, as a collaborator and a coordinator… bringing people together who have already solved problems, or who have really good ideas, and trying to figure out how how we elevate those and bring them to scale.”)
For detractors, it’s the familiar interplay of wealth, influence, and power.
As he addressed his staff on Thursday, Clinton spoke with pride about the “hard-earned reputation of the foundation in philanthropic circles,” where he has championed what he described as “thick, layered, informed partnerships.”
"You have no idea how many nights the last thing I think about is somebody out there somewhere in the world’s life is better because of something we did,” he told the staff.
"I have never done anything in my life that was more fun."
Ruby Cramer is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Ruby Cramer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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