How the Clinton Foundation Works With the Entertainment World to Give Back

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton smile during the annual Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) on Sept. 21, 2010 in New York City. 

Ever since Bill Clinton took the stage with Chuck Berry, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson and a reunited Fleetwood Mac at the 1993 Inaugural Ball, the relationship between the 42nd President and the entertainment community has been on full display. That relationship grew even stronger in Clinton’s post-presidency, as he worked with pop culture icons ranging from Bono to Elmo to affect change through his philanthropic organization, the Clinton Foundation, and the annual Clinton Global Initiative. Now, with CGI having wrapped its final session and the Clinton Foundation under increasing scrutiny in anticipation of a world where Hillary Clinton and her family are back in the White House, it’s worth examining that relationship.

“From the Clinton Administration through the Foundation, we’re talking about well over twenty years of working to promote the issues that the President cares about,” says Craig Minassian, the Clinton Foundation’s Chief Communications Officer, noting that they don’t spend money on advertising or marketing the way many foundations do. “It’s important to President Clinton and Chelsea that we put the maximum amount of resources into running the programs and doing the charitable work. That means being creative about how we spread awareness, which is one of the reasons we try to find creative ways to work with the entertainment industry to highlight that work.”

Minassian highlights a number of different ways CGI and the Clinton Foundation partner with the celebrity-industrial complex. There are the stars like Brad Pitt or Alicia Keys who have their own charities, and know that by promoting their work at CGI, and partnering with the Foundation, they can maximize their impact. There are movies and TV programs that incorporate the Foundation and its work as plot points because they make sense to the narrative, such as when fictional characters with political ambitions address the CGI in The Adjustment Bureau or The Newsroom. Comedy powerhouses like The Simpsons, FunnyOrDie.com and the late night talk shows provide like-minded and lighthearted platforms to spread awareness to viewers who might not be subscribers to Foreign Affairs. And there are continuing efforts to unobtrusively integrate the message of Foundation initiatives into viewers’ regularly scheduled programming.

The Simpsons is a good example,” says Minassian. In a politically-focused episode last year, a cartoon President Clinton appeared in Lisa Simpson’s dream and discusses his foundation’s work. “In that case, they came up with the idea because it fit the narrative. And because the President had done a good job talking about CGI, the audience had a basic understanding of what we were doing.”

Minassian cites the Foundation’s “Too Small To Fail” campaign, which aims to improve early childhood development, as another example for how they work with the entertainment community. Two years ago, Chelsea Clinton began meeting with Hollywood writers and producers to discuss how they might work TSTF’s message into their shows, and now viewers can find characters discussing the benefits of reading to their baby on shows ranging from Law & Order to Jane the Virgin. Notes Minassian, “I think everyone realized that just doing public service announcements doesn’t get the point across as well as integrating the idea of improving childhood literacy in a television program.”

“Right after we launched we decided to go to Hollywood,” says Patti Miller, CEO of Too Small To Fail. “We were aware of the growing body of research that shows that the entertainment media can have a powerful impact not just increasing viewer’s awareness but even in influencing their behaviors.” The group recently partnered with Spotify (and a host of celebrities) to curate playlists for kids that promote their development.

Though the Clinton Foundation is in transition, its figurehead remains committed to the work, and the relationships he’s formed. “Whether it was how he incorporated music in the ’92 campaign or the really groundbreaking relationships with the entertainment business through various initiatives when he was president or the work of the Foundation, when President Clinton has a chance to bring together things that he loves – and he loves music, he loves film – being able to take the philanthropic work and do it with artists that he respects and admires, he really loves it,” says Minassian. “The President understands that in promoting philanthropic work and generating conversations about complicated global development issues, you have to do everything you can to foster that understanding, and if you can work with the entertainment community to do it, it really makes a difference.”

Here are some of the highlights of the entertainment world’s long love affair with the Clinton Foundation.

September 29, 2007

President Clinton launches CGI U at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem with a special event, “CGI and MTV present: Giving – Live at the Apollo.” Host Sway Calloway led a roundtable discussion on the state of youth activism with a panel including President Clinton, Bono, Alicia Keys, Chris Rock and Shakira.

March, 2008

AP Photo/Cheryl Gerber
President Bill Clinton hosting his Clinton Global Initiative University and Brad Pitt, right, founder of the Make It Right Foundation, pose with DeeCarla Rogers while they greet volunteers and break ground for new homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans on March 16, 2008.

Six hundred students from across the globe joined President Clinton and Brad Pitt in New Orleans to break ground on the actor’s “Make it Right” campaign, with the goal of constructing 150 sustainable and affordable homes in the Lower 9th Ward. Pitt had launched the project at the 2007 CGI Annual Meeting, where he and Steve Bing each committed $5 million to helping rebuild New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation.

September, 2009

When Matt Damon announced his commitment to bring clean water to third world countries at the CGI Annual Meeting in New York, the actor was in the midst of filming The Adjustment Bureau, in which he plays a young politician. To capitalize on their star’s engagement at CGI - and with the Clinton Foundation’s blessing -- the production crew was granted security clearance and filmed Damon documentary style, using the actor as part of his fictional character’s story. As producer Michael Hackett recalled, because he was a politician, Damon’s character “would logically be at this type of an event. We could get him interacting with President Clinton and other heads of state.” The film was released just in time for the 2011 CGI.

October, 2009

For decades now, Garry Trudeau has poked fun at politics in his iconic comic strip, Doonesbury. So it was no shock when President Clinton complains to President Obama that he wasn’t getting the credit he deserved: “My Clinton Global Initiative has saved millions of people, but the Nobel Committee has given me squat.” To be fair, he’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on a number of occasions, so there’s still time.

September 23, 2010

At the CGI Annual Meeting, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore launched their “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” campaign, a commitment to use media and social networks to expose the prevalence of child sex slavery in the U.S.. While the couple's relationship came to an end two years later, their “real Men” campaign endures.

March, 2011

In his best-selling book, The Social Animal, New York Times columnist David Brooks describes how his fictional protagonist “met his wife at the Clinton Global Initiative, where they happened to be wearing the same Doctors Without Borders support bracelets.” The two main characters are a think tank fellow and the White House Deputy Chief of Staff, so the meet-cute location makes sense.

October 16, 2011

Barbara Kinney
Chelsea Clinton, Bill Clinton, Lady Gaga and Hillary Clinton at the CGI’s Decade of Difference concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 2011.

To celebrate the Clinton Foundation’s tenth anniversary, a who’s who of iconic performers gathered in the Hollywood Bowl for the Decade of Difference Concert... and to help President Clinton celebrate his 65th birthday. Highlights included a surprise performance by Stevie Wonder, Usher splitting his pants, Bono calling Clinton “by far the most beloved American since JFK for all of us Irish,” and -- speaking of JFK -- Lady Gaga channeling Marilyn Monroe as she serenaded the former president with “Happy Birthday.”

October 17, 2011

The day after the Decade of Difference concert, Funny or Die introduced viewers to the “Clinton Foundation: Celebrity Division,” which included Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Jack Black, Matt Damon, Sean Penn, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen and Kevin Spacey discussing how to make the world a better place. Among the lessons learned: Damon loves softball, Danson and Steenburgen love each other, Sean Penn loves his lunch, and Kevin Spacey loves to impersonate Bill Clinton.

April 12, 2012

At CGI U at George Washington University, Jon Stewart and President Clinton discussed some of the most pressing domestic and international issues facing the next generation. Stewart was especially impressed with how the young people at the gathering worked to address these challenges with concrete, innovative action (in contrast to Stewart, whose own youthful innovation was limited to an ability to make a “bong out of an apple”).

April 16, 20112

At the same event just a few days later, Usher wowed the assembled crowd when he was asked what inspired his youth service work, and he replied in song. Luckily he had the lyrics to Whitney Houston’s classic “The Greatest Love of All” at the ready, and led the audience in a sing-along.

April 2013

Stephen Colbert launched the “Colbert Galactic Initiative” (even more ambitious than the Clinton Global Initiative) when he introduced President Clinton during CGI U at Washington University in St. Louis: “Please join me in welcoming the man responsible for the last government surplus, the most beloved living president other than Martin Sheen, and my future close personal friend, William Jefferson Billy Jeff Clinton.” By the end of the event he helped his now “close personal friend” launch his Twitter account:


June 2013

The Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail (TSTF) initiative launches with the goal of helping parents and business improve the health and wellbeing of America’s youngest children. Working with Hollywood to spread the message is a major component in the campaign.

September 25, 2013

When President Clinton was running late to a panel at the CGI Annual Meeting, longtime friend and ally Bono decided to fill in, complete with an impression of Clinton that left the audience in stitches. A couple days later, President Clinton returned the favor, impersonating Bono while interviewed by Piers Morgan. He even wore shades.

November 24, 2013

Early in his first term, President Clinton appeared on The Simpsons, the first of 18 episodes featuring him in cartoon form. Two decades later he popped up in Lisa Simpson’s dream to tell her all about the work of CGI ahead of Lisa’s debate with a right-wing classmate. After all, he told he, “You’re a lot like me: play the saxophone, come from a small town, raised by a mother with no help.”

November, 2013

Chelsea Clinton and TSTF host a workshop for television writers, producers and executives to discuss how to best integrate the group’s message into Hollywood narratives. A second roundtable, focusing on comedy, would meet in June 2014.

March 23, 2014

Before leading his session at CGI U in 2014, Jimmy Kimmel attempts to trump Ellen’s famous Oscar selfie with one of his own, featuring the former President, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton.



June, 2014

TSTF’s message is featured on the second season of Orange is the New Black, when one of the inmates urges her boyfriend to spend more time engaging with their son, telling him, “there’s all these studies that say that if you don’t talk to the baby they end up, like, fucked by the time they’re five.” When the boyfriend and baby are back for visitation hours, it’s clear he took her advice to heart.

September 23, 2014

With host Seth Meyers, performances by Aloe Blacc, Natalie Merchant, Jason Mraz and the Roots -- and Leonardo DiCaprio honored with the Clinton Global Citizen Award -- that year’s CGI Annual Meeting was a star-studded affair. The highlight of the weekend, though, was CGI regular Matt Damon busting out his best Bill Clinton impression. (Which wasn’t quite as good as Bono’s. Or Kevin Spacey’s.)

December 14, 2014

On HBO’s The Newsroom, the young tech billionaire played by B.J. Novak boasts about speaking at the Clinton Foundation, and how that will help his public reputation.

January 2015     

To help TSTF launch the “Text4baby” text-to-parents initiative, Chelsea Clinton pays a visit to Sesame Street, where she tells Elmo about her new daughter Charlotte and why “it’s so important for little kids to be sung to and to be read to and to be talked to by their parents and everyone in their lives.”

March 8, 2015

For International Women’s Day, the Clinton Foundation’s No Ceilings initiative launched a campaign to raise awareness on issues of gender equality. For a full day, magazine covers, Times Square billboards, and even popular songs on the radio were stripped of women, directing audiences to visit NOT-THERE.org to learn why. In addition, female celebrities including Amy Poehler, Cameron Diaz, Padma Lakshmi, and Sienna Miller starred in a must-see video to support the campaign.

May 2015

Giovanni Ruffino/NBC
Jack Nawada-Braunwart as Noah Porter-Benson and Mariska Hargitay as Lieutenant Olivia Benson in Law & Order: SVU.

On Law & Order: SVU, Mariska Hargitay’s character pushes TSTF’s message as she tells a social worker how she reads and sings with her baby to support his early language development.

October 26, 2015

 Greg Gayne / ©The CW / courtesy Everett Collection
Gina Rodriguez in Jane the Virgin.

TSTF is back on TV with Jane the Virgin, where new mom Jane narrates her day to her baby to help boost language development.

August 2016       

TSTF helps Spotify relaunch its Kids Category, called Kids and Family, to inspire parents and caregivers to make it fun and easy to sing with their young children and help set them up for success in school and in life. The curated playlists feature tips between the songs from such stars as Wiz Khalifa, Fantasia, Busy Philipps, Tyler Perry and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

September 19, 2016

Taylor Hill/FilmMagic
Bill Clinton and Jon Bon Jovi at the 2016 Clinton Global Citizen Awards during the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting at Sheraton New York Times Square on Sept. 19, 2016 in New York City. 

At the 12th and final CGI Annual Meeting, the star power was in full effect, with Bono and Ben Affleck on discussion panels; Andrea Bocelli performing with the Voices of Haiti Choir, a group of children 9-15 he works with through his foundation; and Jon Bon Jovi receiving the Clinton Global Citizen Award for his SOUL Foundation, which works to combat poverty in the U.S.