Bill Clinton: The rainmaker 

The William J. Clinton Foundation had $154.8 million in the bank at the end of 2005. That’s shy by a few million of the bucks held by the Gates Foundation ($29.1 billion) or Arkansas’s home-grown Walton Foundation ($1.1 billion).

But it’s got an asset more valuable than money: Bill Clinton.

When the former president of the United States calls up people who’ve shown philanthropic interest and says let’s go to Africa, they’re likely to say OK. After a first-hand look at how the Clinton system works — and hours of plane travel and card games and lots of talk — the world’s wealthy are becoming partners in projects that heal the sick, promote health and bring in jobs on a significant scale.

Clinton’s is a different model of philanthropy: It answers needs, but requires a commitment from the leadership where the need exists to make sure a project endures. It seeks outside funders rather than making grants itself, matching philanthropic individuals and foundations — and even governments, like Canada and France — to projects in need of funding. It puts controls in place, in the form of volunteers and staff people on the ground who oversee work. And of course, the foundation has a rainmaker like no other.

“We all have an unprecedented amount of power,” the president says in his foundation’s 2005 annual report, “to solve problems, save lives, and help people.” He may have meant “all” collectively, but there’s no doubt that Clinton, with his mastery of the problems he wants to tackle and his sway with people who can make things happen, has enormous power. “Clinton has access,” foundation CEO and longtime Friend of Bill Bruce Lindsey said, a smile acknowledging the understatement. But, he added, “We only go where we are asked to go.”

So far, the Arkansas Delta hasn’t asked. But the former president — who has been concentrating on Africa and other troubled countries — is thinking about what the Foundation might do in what might be considered Clinton’s own back yard.

The Clinton Library has been a mighty engine of economic development in downtown Little Rock, and it continues to be a supremely classy attraction for a metropolitan area that ranks 80th in the United States.

A greater need, however, is in the Delta, a place Clinton has long desired to help. More than half the black residents of the Delta live in poverty. The illiteracy rate there is said to be as high as 40 percent; it’s got the highest high school dropout rate in the country. Jobs are few, health problems are high.

“We’ve looked at what other people are doing in the Delta,” Lindsey said, “and we’re looking at what we can do differently. We’ve not found that, frankly.” The foundation doesn’t want to embark on a project that sounds good but which has but an ephemeral effect. “It frustrates Clinton not to know the results” of a project, Lindsey said; he wants to be sure it will work and keep working.

In 2001, Clinton created the seven-state Delta Regional Authority, to send federal dollars to economic initiatives in Delta counties. That program is just one of “billions” of federal, state and foundation-funded programs in job training, education, health services and more, the Foundation’s go-to person for local initiatives said.

Ann Camps, who works in the foundation’s finance office and who spearheaded HIPPY (Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters) in the early years of Clinton’s term as governor, has spent the past year meeting with program managers for the myriad of projects in place in the Delta. Much good has been done, but the return on the amount of dollars invested — perhaps a billion in the past decade — has, “at best, been questionable,” she said.

“The generosity of foundations is still out there,” Camps said. “The real challenge is to figure out where we can do the most good.”

There are small projects that are doable and should have good results — like the Earned Income Tax Credit Awareness Program, which the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund spearheaded in Little Rock and Pine Bluff. The IRS extended the filing deadline for persons affected by Katrina. More than 450 applications were processed in the Central Arkansas push, Clinton Foundation spokesman Jordan Johnson said. Other suggestions: To sell local products through the Internet if there’s no local market (former Foundation head Skip Rutherford’s idea) or to outsource jobs to the Delta.

But, Camps said, Clinton’s best role in the Delta might be to help those who are already working there work better, and “in unison.” The programs could be coordinated to end duplication and better spend money (which, she noted, will require folks to give up turf, no easy thing itself). Programs need to share power. The Foundation’s international experience might offer up new strategies for the Delta. The root causes of racism need to be addressed head-on.

Whatever the Foundation decides to do, Camps said, “We can’t afford to fail.”

When Camps talks about bringing all the stakeholders and funders in the Delta together, it sounds an awful lot like the Clinton Global Initiative. This fall, in New York City, the CGI met for three days and got commitments from companies and philanthropists for the investment of $7.3 billion on new social projects.

The model: Put the haves and the have-needs in a room, and if they link up, put a lock on that chain. The resulting pledges ranged from the huge — $3 billion from British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson to develop renewable energy sources over the next decade — to the small, $500,000 over five years from Hartford Seminary and individual donors to train “a new kind of religious leadership that addresses the critical needs of our pluralistic and conflicted society.”

Fifty-eight “commitments” were made to improve health, 40 to address energy needs and global warming, 37 to alleviate poverty and 23 for religious tolerance. Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s secretary of state, and the Albright Group LLC pledged assistance to the Save Darfur Coalition. The head of Merck & Co. pharmaceuticals pledged $75 million over three years to vaccinate against rotavirus in Nicaragua. Wal-Mart and its CEO pledged to improve packaging of the products in its stores by using 100 percent renewable resources and “creating zero waste.” (Wal-Mart doesn’t package its products, of course; this pledge means it will require its suppliers to change the way they package items.)

The Clinton Foundation’s achie-vement of delivering affordable AIDS/HIV medication to the suffering in Africa is well-known. Thanks to a Sam Walton-style strategy that convinced HIV/AIDS drug-makers to lower their prices in return for a bigger market, a quarter of a million Africans who couldn’t afford the drugs before now can. With help from the Gates Foundation, which donated $9.3 million toward the procurement program, a buying consortium of 58 countries was created. “It drove the price down from $700 to $140 for a year’s supply,” Lindsey said. Pediatric drugs fell from $500 per child to $200. The work has inspired other countries to create funds to purchase pediatric drugs and second-line drugs.

Partnership is the key. Clinton so impressed a tennis-shoe magnate from Scotland — Tom Hunter — with the Foundation’s structure to insure successful outcomes that Hunter kicked in $100 million over 10 years as seed money for economic development in Rwanda and Malawi. The Foundation partnered with Partners in Health to renovate an abandoned hospital and staff it, and with Yale School of Public Health to train health administrators in Ethiopia. (In both cases, the Foundation’s paid for some of the expenses involved and put its own people on the ground to oversee the programs.) The Foundation has been a catalyst for country-to-country programs, convincing Canada, Ireland, Great Britain, Australia to assist developing countries.

In the United States, neighborhood leaders fearful Clinton’s decision to put his office in Harlem would gentrify small shops right out of business came to the former president and said, “Welcome. What are you going to do for us?” Lindsey said. The Foundation’s response was to collaborate with a university to offer advice to small businesses on how to compete. The Urban Enterprise Initiative has since been repeated in the Bronx and Brooklyn and the Foundation may work with the University of Southern California to take it to Los Angeles.

When the American Heart Association asked Clinton after his heart surgery to make a PSA, he declined, saying its usefulness would be impossible to measure. Rather, he directed the Foundation to collaborate with the AHA on a health project, and with an $8 million grant from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation was created. Nickelodeon decided to donate air time, creating a television program that will follow kids over time (they held tryouts for the show in Los Angeles, New York and Little Rock). In a typical Clintonian handshake across the aisle, the Alliance made Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee its co-chair.

Some of Clinton’s good works have been criticized as purely political, intended to help Sen. Hillary Clinton’s career and her possible run for the presidency. When he announced earlier this year that the soft drink industry would voluntarily offer healthier options to schools, critics said he was riding the coattails of an agreement that was in the works before he became involved, and that it was a bad one at that. They wondered about his motivation.

“That’s what people in D.C. do,” Lindsey said. They don’t believe in altruism. But Lindsey says they’re wrong.

“He cares about people and wants to help them. … [His work] is not to help Hillary.” The soft drink industry wasn’t going to go along with voluntary changes until Clinton stepped in, Lindsey said, and criticism that it’s voluntary and “doesn’t involve all manufacturers of sweets” is faulty. “What’s the alternative? Doing nothing? I haven’t seen government [taking action].”

Clinton and people working with Clinton — like Paul Farmer of Partners in Health — “are people doing good works for the right reasons,” Lindsey insisted.

Could Clinton achieve more through his Foundation than he did as president? Clinton has said no; Lindsey echoes that. “You’d have to live an awful long time to have the impact [a president] has in eight years.”

But, he conceded, Clinton might live that long. Certainly, over time, the Foundation’s impact could be historic.



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