Selling Cookies to End World Hunger: The Clinton Foundation, United Way and the Rise of the Super-Donor


Yesterday, I received an email from a friend who is the CEO of a local United Way who told me about a recent decision by Pfizer, Inc. to no longer run an annual United Way-branded employee campaign. That decision will further erode the resources that local United Ways count on in the communities where Pfizer is located. But it’s not surprising. For the last two decades, United Way has struggled to find its footing, since corporate philanthropy is increasingly tied to brand management and increasing employee engagement in an ever less engaged workplace.

United Way found itself in the news a couple weeks back in a tempest-in-a-teapot sort of way. It seems that a local United Way in New Mexico is holding a raffle to raise money. And not just any sort of raffle, a raffle for which the prizes are guns to be given away weekly during 2017. The players in the teapot tempest include the NRA, anti-gun-violence groups and former CIA agent Valerie Plame. The 2nd Amendment people won that argument, as they usually do (it’s New Mexico, after all, in the Year of The Donald) and United Way began selling tickets to raise money for the local programs it funds.

Now this post isn’t really about United Way. It’s about the Clinton Foundation. Well, not that exactly either, but rather, about the changing nature of charitable giving and its increasing reliance on super-donorsclinton foundation

It’s become damned hard to raise money for charity these days. It’s not just that we seem to have national attention-deficit disorder, attributable to the 24-hour news cycle, the crumbling of intuitional trust and a rise in tribalism. There are a multitude of needs waving for our attention, in the form of our money. The school down the block with a 52% black male graduation rate. The worldwide refugee crisis, global climate change, Zika, income inequality, civil rights are all structural problems that can only be solved by collective action, including huge investments of charitable cash.

Hence the rise of the super-donor. When Bill Gates and Warren Buffett launched a joint effort to get billionaires to give away their wealth to help the poor, they were initially met with chuckles and disbelief. They persisted, though, and now there are 154 billionaires from around the world that have taken the Giving Pledge to give away more than half their wealth to charitable causes. That’s good, though that good is of a cautionary nature.

Charitable giving, especially by super-donors, is not purely altruistic. That’s why the tax code allows for deductions of charitable gifts, and it’s why rich people set up their own foundations. That exchange of cash, between the donor and the charity, always comes with some sort string attached. It may only be that the donor wants to made to feel good (usually in a public way, as on a sponsors’ list) but sometimes it means that the donor wants to influence the programs or mission of the charity receiving the gift.

And hence, the Clinton Foundation. Anyone who is screaming about special attention being paid to large donors by Clinton Foundation staff or Secretary Clinton has obviously never run a charity or tried to raise large sums of money for a charitable cause. Because that’s how it works: donors, especially significant donors, have to be cultivated, sometimes for years, and that cultivation includes special attention and ego-stroking. There are not that many of them and charities are increasingly reliant on them.

Foundations and other charitable funders, like United Ways, really can’t do the things they do with car washes, bake sales or raffles, even with guns. Only large scale mobilizations of the sort that United Ways do in large, rapidly disappearing workplace campaigns, or that huge global foundationlive united shirts like the Clinton Foundation do with the world’s super-rich, will ever raise enough money to move the needle on major issues, however tentative that movement may be. And the people who give want something back, even if it’s just a Live UnitedTM t-shirt or lunch with the Secretary of State.

That’s a problem for the Clintons, because many people make the assumption that nefarious things were discussed over the watercress and strawberry lemonade. One does not have to prove that anything illegal or unethical happened. In fact, one may assert that the quid pro quo of the t-shirt or the VIP meeting is itself an ethical problem. If enough people agree, then a new ethic of raising money without donor attachment will be put into place.

Just see how much money you can raise with that. Meantime, want to buy a cookie to end world hunger?

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