Billboard’s Philanthropy Issue: Inside How the Music Industry Gives Back
Bill Clinton, vibrant and trim at 70, in a tailored navy suit and a bright red tie, strolls into Billboard’s makeshift photo studio at the New York Hilton Midtown in late September, during the 12th and final meeting of his charitable foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), which has long tapped musicians to give voice to causes. “It’s astonishing the impact they’re having,” says the president about the artists he has worked with through the years, from Elton John to Usher. Right now, rock legends Jon Bon Jovi and Sting trail him quietly like starstruck roadies. When the former president stands beside Bon Jovi and Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, for a group photo, the stars remain quiet while Clinton becomes the quipster-in-chief. “Two couples out for a nice date,” he deadpans. Everyone giggles. Then, turning to Bon Jovi, he says, “I always thought you were the prettiest one.” Everyone laughs. “This is Bon Jovi’s Be Kind to a Senior night!” he says.
It is not surprising, given his professional history, that Clinton is able to maintain a sense of aplomb during this trying year that finds his wife, Hillary Clinton, in the ugliest presidential race in recent U.S. history. Their family name is getting dragged through the mud along with the reputation of the foundation to which Clinton has dedicated his post-White House life. While Hillary remains the clear frontrunner in the election, with just days to go, a steady drip of embarrassing-at-best hacked emails, released by WikiLeaks, has dampened spirits during her campaign’s stretch run. In the latest example, on Wednesday (Oct. 26), media outlets reported on a leaked memo from 2011 that raises further concerns about the intersection of the former president's charitable work with his and his colleagues' personal enrichment, in which a veteran aide to the president said that Clinton "gets many expensive gifts" from donors, while Chelsea warned of various aides profiting from the Foundation's endeavors. The documents contain no evidence of any “pay-for-play” involving then Sec. Clinton, as charged by Republicans. A representative from the Clinton Foundation had no comment on the leaked emails.
Still, Bill, a politician who believes in the importance of fighting back when attacked, knows he needs to advocate for his family and for his causes in a way befitting an ex-president. So while Republican nominee Donald Trump accuses the Clinton Foundation (the umbrella organization under which CGI operates) of being a slush fund set up to enrich the Clinton family and a means through which foreign leaders try to influence U.S. policy, Clinton cheerfully recalls that a few years ago, Trump himself donated to the organization. “Her opponent gave me $100,000,” he tells Billboard. “He asked me what I did and I explained it to him. He said that’s great and he just sent me $100,000. I learned last week that it came from somebody else, but it was an interesting gesture.” Clinton has no illusions as to why the foundation is under attack. “It’s because Hillary’s running for president,” he says. “There was no controversy before.”
Clinton’s frustration with the attacks on his foundation and CGI is palpable. “It’s hard to hear because I know good and well that a lot of the people that are saying it know it’s not true. It’s an insult to all the people who have worked there. But the people who have contributed know, and the people who have done the work know, and sometimes that’s got to be enough.” His daughter, Chelsea, who is vice chairman of the foundation, is troubled by the accusations too. “First and foremost the Clinton Foundation is a charity, and somehow that has gotten lost,” she says.
During the last 12 years, the foundation has raised about $300 million annually, according to watchdog organization CharityWatch, which conducts in-depth analyses on charity audits and filings, among other measures. CGI has directly helped more than 430 million people in 180 countries deal with poverty, climate change and AIDS and other pressing issues. The size of Clinton’s network, and his ability to bring together elites of global government, business and charity, have helped make the organization a huge success by most objective standards. And while some observers argue that accepting support from certain governments -- including authoritarian regimes -- can create expectations of access, there’s no evidence that anyone who donated to the foundation got access in exchange for contributing.
CharityWatch president Daniel Borochoff posits that “there’s a lot of unfair criticisms that are based on misunderstanding how a nonprofit operates.” Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, and global research professor at New York University, suggests that “CGI is legitimately interested in promoting important causes in some of the world’s most underdeveloped areas, and they’re not only supporting those causes but building a group of like-minded young people who are committed to them.”
The Clinton Foundation uses 10 percent of its endowment in the way any foundation would: to fund charitable work. But most of the remaining 90 percent goes toward charitable work the organization carries out itself, along with its various partners. “We have been very transparent about the work that we do and how it’s funded, and that 87 percent of our funds go directly to our work,” says Chelsea. “I would hope that if people spend a little bit of time looking beyond the clickbait headlines, they’ll realize why I am so proud.” (Meanwhile, the Trump Foundation -- a private family foundation -- has been roundly lambasted for a large number of ethical and financial improprieties.)
Bill Clinton has many friends in the music world, and some of CGI’s key ties are with musicians. The group works with Bono, Elton John and Alicia Keys to fight AIDS; with Tony Bennett to provide arts education in schools; with Sting to save the rain forest; and with Bon Jovi to fight homelessness. Clinton is particularly proud of what Bon Jovi has done and honored him with a Clinton Global Citizen Award for Leadership in Philanthropy in September. They have been friends since 1996, and Clinton supported Bon Jovi in person when Bon Jovi launched his JBJ Soul Foundation. “I’ve had more than one opportunity to have a glass of wine with the Clintons. I have pictures of the kids just sitting with the Clintons, Mrs. C. with the glasses on,” recalls Bon Jovi. “His desire to help people is the foundation of who he is.”
The Clinton Foundation confirms that this is the last year of CGI, though the reasons why are vague. No doubt it has to do with the likelihood that Hillary will become president -- a great thing for Bill, even if it’s at the expense of his baby. “Oh, I’ll miss this a lot,” he says. “I love this. I love seeing people running big companies doing things that they hadn’t imagined.” But Clinton will need something to do during the next four to eight years, and he has a vision for what a resurrected CGI would look like -- “if,” he says, “Hillary becomes president.” He says accepting donations from foreign countries would not be possible, but they could work through that. “What we’re going to do,” he says, “is take everything that’s funded by foreign funds and either spin it all to independent foundations that I’m not involved in, or we’re going to make those things independent and let them be taken over by someone else. But in America we should still be able to run a lot of these health programs with just individual contributions, not corporate.”
“We can’t lose him; he can’t be sidelined,” says Sting, who has observed Clinton closely on efforts around rain forest conservation. “His work is grounded in genuine empathy for people. ‘I feel your pain’ is not just a cliché for him.”