The Clinton Foundation — an explainer

What does it do and why does it matter?
Posted at 10:06 AM, Sep 13, 2016

History is filled with presidents who have created foundations with altruistic goals after their time in office is finished.

Franklin D. Roosevelt founded the March of Dimes with an initial goal to beat polio.

George H.W. Bush created the Points of Light Foundation to promote volunteerism and community service.

Jimmy Carter founded the Carter Center to improve health throughout the world.

None of these foundations, however, have generated the inquiries, accusations and vitriolic rhetoric that has come with the Clinton Foundation.

RELATED: Clinton charities fail to disclose millions

But what is the Clinton Foundation and why has the foundation become a campaign issue?

Here are some answers to help get people acquainted with the Clinton Foundation and why the nonprofit has become such a talking point this election cycle.

What is the Clinton Foundation?

That question generates many different answers depending on who does the answering. To some, the Clinton Foundation is an initiative designed to help global causes such as preventing disease, addressing impacts of climate change and improving economic opportunities.

To others, the Clinton Foundation represents the worst of insider politics as a way for the Clintons to curry favor with influential, wealthy people throughout the world.

So to ask again, what is the Clinton Foundation?

While in office, President Bill Clinton started pouring money into the William J. Clinton Foundation, which was later renamed the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation in 2013 after Hillary Clinton stepped down as Secretary of State. 

Now an entity that has raised more than $2 billion,  the foundation employs more than 2,000 people, according to the Washington Post.

The foundation collects and distributes money for a number of different nonprofit organizations and efforts such as the Clinton Global Initiative. In total, the foundation lists nine major initiatives.

Clinton Climate Initiative
Clinton Development Initiative
Clinton Foundation in Haiti
Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership
Clinton Global Initiative
Clinton Health Matters Initiative
Clinton Presidential Center
No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project
Two Small to Fail

The foundation also has two affiliated entities — Alliance for Healthier Generation and the Clinton Health Access Initiative.



CharityWatch gave the Clinton Foundation an “A” rating in 2014 with 88 percent of the money raised going to programs versus 12 percent going to overhead such as fundraising and management expenses. According to the organization, it costs the Clinton Foundation $2 to raise $100.

CharityWatch President Daniel Borochoff said the “A” rating comes because the numbers for the Clinton Foundation evaluated by CharityWatch are good. CharityWatch digs deeper than the tax forms provided by charities to determine whether real money and goods of value are going to worthy causes. CharityWatch, a non-partisan entity, does not evaluate whether the programs are effective.

Borochoff said CharityWatch does not have a distinct evaluation for charities run by or connected to public officials compared to public foundations run or connected only to private citizens.

The Clinton Foundation, however, is not by nature a grant-making program that raises money simply to dole out to other charities or causes. Instead, the Clinton Foundation runs a number of programs that use the money in an attempt to do good work, Borochoff said.

The Clinton Global Initiative is more of a match-making gathering to put influential people with different ideas and resources together, Borochoff said.

“This money does not flow through the Clinton Foundation unless the Clintons happen to arrange some sort of partnership,” Borochoff said. “This is a different sort of thing.”

Charity watchdog Charity Navigator gave the Clinton Foundation four stars and a score of 94.74 out of 100 along with a 93.00 out of 100 for accountability and transparency in a 2016 review. The foundation lost points for its donor privacy policy, according to The Associated Press.

But in 2012, Charity Navigator had downgraded the Clinton Foundation to three stars in part because the foundation had only three independent board members, according to AP.

Charity Navigator had given the Clinton Foundation four stars in 2007 and was a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, according to AP. 

When did the Clinton Foundation begin?

Financial records for the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation show the origin beginning in 1997 as then-President Bill Clinton started sowing the seeds for his presidential library. President Barack Obama has started his own foundation in a similar way.

But the localized nonprofit turned into an international charity in 2001 as Bill Clinton sought to do something more after leaving the Oval Office, according to a 2015 story by the Washington Post.

In Sept. 2005, the foundation started the Clinton Global Initiative. In a news release, Bill Clinton said the inaugural event had almost 300 commitments and raised $2.5 billion for other organizations and missions.

The charity went from a relatively small operation to a major global organization. Annual revenues for the Clinton Foundation doubled from $57.7 million to $141.7 million from 2004 to 2006, according to financial reports on the foundation’s website.

Revenues exceeded $337 million in 2014, according to the foundation’s most recent released audited financial statement.

What is/was Hillary Clinton’s involvement with the Clinton Foundation?

According to the foundation’s website and news reports, Hillary Clinton served on the board of directors for the foundation after stepping down as Secretary of State in 2013. She stepped down from her position on the board in April, 2015 to run for president.

No salary is or has been given to Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton or the couple’s daughter Chelsea, but part of the controversy surrounding the Clintons this campaign cycle has been tethered to speaking fees.

According to the Washington Post, Bill Clinton received at least $26 million in speaking fees from companies and organizations that donated to the Clinton Foundation. Many of those speaking arrangements were designed to speak about the foundation, the Washington Post reported.

Who contributes to the Clinton Foundation?

The foundation’s website says the nonprofit has 300,000 contributors. Of those contributors, the foundation reported 90 percent contribute $100 or less. But some contribute much, much more.

The foundation does not list actual amounts of the donations but rather gives broad categories of giving.

For example, seven donors are listed as having contributed more than $25 million.

The names include:

  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership (Canada)
  • Fred Eychaner and Alphawood Foundation
  • Frank Giustra, The Radcliffe Foundation
  • Nationale Postcode Loterij
  • The Children’s Investment Fund Foundation

However, the foundation does not list when any of the donations were made, whether they were made when Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State or whether they were made in one lump sum sum rather than divided out in different years. The foundation does list whether at least a portion of the donations were made during the second quarter of 2016.

Laws in New York require charities to “list each government contribution (grant) separately,” according to a Scripps Washington Bureau investigation. New York requires more transparency than other states with regards to nonprofits, according to the Scripps investigation.

But the Clinton Foundation only disclosed a lump sum of $122 million in foreign government donations in 2009 and continued to only provide lump sum disclosures in every year following, according to the Scripps Washington Bureau report.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has donated $2,700 to Hillary Clinton’s run and has been named to Clinton’s “leadership council” in New York.

The Clinton Foundation has targeted influential and wealthy people to contribute to the foundation from entertainment stars such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to world leaders to billionaires such as Bill Gates. Foreign governments such as Saudi Arabia also have contributed. Even Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is listed as a donor. PolitiFact reported Trump’s own foundation gave $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation in 2009.

The inaugural Clinton Global Initiative coincided with a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in part to make it easier for world leaders to attend. 

When Bill Clinton no longer was in office and his wife was a senator as opposed to a presidential candidate, the casual mingling with foreign leaders and the super wealthy did not generate as many questions as they do today.

Borochoff said global charities have a long history of accepting donations from foreign donations.

“The mere fact that you get foreign money doesn’t mean something bad is going on,” he said. “Charity has a rich history of turning bad money into good money in terms of money from say an unsavory character giving money. But sure, if you could point to some sort of quid pro quo arrangement where somebody got some sort of special benefit, that would be clearly wrong.” 

What are the allegations against the Clinton Foundation?

The main question is whether there are any spoken or unspoken promises given in exchange for donations to the foundation. 

Another question is whether foreigners are skirting U.S. election laws through donating to the Clinton Foundation.

The issues have been questions since Obama first named Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

The Obama administration required the Clinton Foundation to disclose the names of more than 200,000 donors in order for Clinton to become Secretary of State. Those names included foreign governments such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar — the type of government donations the Obama administration later asked the Clinton Foundation to stop accepting.

The Obama administration also asked the foundation to cut back Bill Clinton’s involvement in fundraising, according to PolitiFact.

But news outlets have reported on various questions of impropriety with the Clinton Foundation. For example, the New York Times reported in 2015 on the Uranium One deal.

Russian company Rosatom became one of the world’s largest uranium producers when the company acquired Uranium One from a Canadian group in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013. The deal required approval from a U.S. group consisting of people from many different organizations, including the State Department, according to the Times.

As the deal was taking place, the Clinton Foundation received several donations adding up to $2.35 million from the Uranium One chairman and Bill Clinton received $500,000 for a speech given to a Russian bank that was tied to the Kremlin, according to the Times.

The Clinton campaign called the Times’ accusations “baseless” and said that such a matter would have been handled by a lower level official at the State Department, according to the report. The Times reported that the deal was approved by a number of organizations, both foreign and domestic.

“Whether the donations played any role in the approval of the uranium deal is unknown,” the Times reported.

The Clinton Foundation also has hired a number of people who worked under Hillary Clinton for either her campaign or when she served as Secretary of State, including aide Huma Abedin. Abedin took a second salary with the foundation, according to the Washington Post.

Emails have shown that Abedin served as a go-between for Clinton and the foundation’s donors while Clinton served as Secretary of State.

How has this impacted the election?

The biggest impact the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s involvement with the organization has been less about the nonprofit itself and more about pre-existing narratives for the Clintons, experts said.

In national polls from Aug. 24 through Sept. 6, an average of 54.8 percent of people polled had an unfavorable opinion of Hillary Clinton, according to RealClearPolitics.

Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State impacted her poll numbers with regards to trustworthiness, said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and author of “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President.”

The Clinton Foundation issue reinforces those concerns for some voters, Kondik said.

“There are certain perceptions of impropriety that I think have done damage to her favorability,” Kondik said. “I think sometimes the most damaging stories can be ones that feed into an existing narrative of someone, and certainly there have been long-standing questions about the trustworthiness and honesty of both Hillary and Bill Clinton.” 

Clinton’s polling lead has closed, but she continues to hold a significant advantage in both the national polls as well as polls in key states. FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast, for example, gave Clinton a 69.4 percent chance of winning as of Sept. 9 and 46.9 percent of the popular vote compared to 43.1 percent of the vote for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

While the Clinton Foundation issue reinforces questions of trustworthiness, the story itself might not impact polls, said Kevin Wagner, an assistant professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University.

“Ultimately, your average voter doesn’t spend a lot of time looking through detailed laws about the requirements for disclosure associated with donations and the agreement between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department,” Wagner said. “Those are highly technical legal issues, but the drive of this story sort of reinforces a dominant image of Clinton in the media that she is less than forthright and honest and that has certainly hurt her in public opinion.” 

Though Clinton’s favorability numbers are low, more Americans have a negative view of her opponent, Trump, according to RealClearPolitics.

In an average of surveys from Aug. 24 through Sept. 6, Trump is viewed negatively by 58.5 percent of those polled.

“The distinct advantage she has is that while she’s not perceived as a favorable candidate — in fact, one of the least favorable candidates in recent memory — she’s running against someone whose favorability rankings are actually worse than hers,” Wagner said.

What is the future of the Clinton Foundation?

The Clintons have promised changes if Hillary Clinton is elected to office. But what the exact changes will be remain up in the air.

Bill Clinton has said the Clinton Foundation will stop accepting foreign or corporate donations and that he will not raise money for the organization if his wife becomes president. Chelsea Clinton, however, would remain on the board, whereas her father has said he will step down.

It is unclear whether Bill or Chelsea Clinton would step down from the Clinton Health Access Initiative, where he is currently the chairman of the board.

The options to turn the Clinton Foundation into a positive campaign issue are limited. Even going as far as to shutter the foundation probably would not do much to help Hillary Clinton’s campaign push, Kondik said. 

“There’s probably not much she can do at this point, and I think the Clintons are loathe to show what they perceive as weakness,” he said. “I think if they were to close the foundation or something like that, it would be sort of a tacit admission that maybe the foundation wasn’t doing something properly before, and I don’t think they believe that.” 

The foundation, however, has the potential to hurt Clinton even if she were to win office, he said, as Republicans would be politically inclined to weaken her as a candidate for 2020.

“If she wins, it’s not about Trump anymore,” Kondik said. “It’s about her and there are clearly a lot of questions about her.” 

Eric Pfahler is a digital producer for the Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter at @Eric_Pfahler.