The Clinton Foundation has become the subject of national controversy, but not because Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump did not always admire its charity work.
Trump recently called the foundation, co-founded in 2002 by Hillary Clinton, Trump's rival in the presidential contest, the “most corrupt enterprise in political history.” Yet he is listed on the foundation’s website among donors who’ve given it $100,000 to $250,000.
The foundation would not disclose when Trump made the donation, but Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, confirmed it, telling CNN on Wednesday that the foundation “does a lot of good work.”
While questions remain about whether large donors to the foundation sought favors from Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, charity watchers say the political firestorm is eclipsing the often lifesaving work of the foundation — from fighting childhood obesity in America to providing low-price HIV/AIDS drugs in Africa.
Were it not for the controversy, “I think it would be regarded as one of America’s great humanitarian charities,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of Charity Watch, an independent charity watchdog based in Chicago.
Charity Watch recently gave the foundation an “A” rating, based on its financial efficiency, accountability, governance and fundraising costs. Charity Watch rates 600 nonprofits and has given "A" ratings to just over 200.
The brainchild of Bill Clinton, the Clinton Foundation was established the year after the former president completed his two terms in office. It was later rebranded as the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation. As vice chair of the foundation's board, Chelsea Clinton, the Clintons' daughter, serves as a driving force behind the organization's programs.
“I wanted to continue working in areas I had long cared about, where I believed I could still make an impact,” Bill Clinton said in an open letter Monday on the future of the foundation.
Those areas have included climate change, economic development, empowering girls and women, and global health and wellness.
Still best known for fighting AIDS in Africa, the Clinton Foundation has grown from small offices in New York City's Harlem and Little Rock, Arkansas, with a staff of 18 people into a global charity spanning four continents and dozens of countries, with 2,000 employees, 11 core programs and a focus on five key issue areas. The bulk of the work is carried out through partnerships with other organizations, such as the multinational health initiative UNITAID on HIV/AIDS.
Measured by spending, the foundation's most important activity remains health, with its flagship Clinton Health Access Initiative accounting for 57 percent of total spending in 2014.
A misnamed charity
Often confused with a grant-making private foundation, the New York-headquartered Clinton Foundation has been criticized — unfairly, it says — for giving very little to charity. Yet, the organization functions more like a public charity than a private foundation. Unlike a private foundation, which mainly distributes grants, it relies heavily on donations and grants from other sources, which it spends directly on programs.
“All of the things it takes to run our programs and help people, we do on our own,” Craig Minassian, the foundation’s chief communications officer, said in an interview with VOA.
According to Minassian, 88 percent of the foundation’s annual spending — in 2014, it was $250 million — goes into implementing programs ranging from hiring health workers to training entrepreneurs.
The industry standard, according to Borochoff of Charity Watch, is 75 percent.
The foundation gives grants “in only very limited circumstances,” according to another foundation official.
Core issue areas
From negotiating low HIV/AIDS test and treatment prices for poor African countries to supporting female entrepreneurs in Peru to reducing beverage calories consumed by American students, the Clinton Foundation’s programs and initiatives read like any deep-pocketed, well-connected do-gooder’s wish list.
But the foundation says it focuses on five key issue areas: improving global health; increasing opportunities for girls and women around the world; reducing childhood obesity in the United States; creating economic opportunity and growth; and helping communities address the effects of climate change.
The foundation works in Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and, for the past decade, the United States. A major geographic focus of the foundation remains Africa, where it runs HIV/AIDS testing and medication programs in sub-Saharan countries, and agriculture and climate projects in the East African countries of Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania. In Latin America and the Caribbean, it manages economic development projects in Haiti, Peru and Colombia. In the United States, since 2005, it has run programs on children's health, energy efficiency and prescription drug abuse reduction.
Where it gets its money
To date, the foundation has raised an estimated $2 billion in grants and donations. In 2014, the foundation had $338 million in revenue, including $218 million in contributions, $114 million in grants and $6 million in other revenue.
It says it has 330,000 donors and that 90 percent of its donations came in amounts of $100 or less. Among other major donors, it has received contributions of more than $25 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and six other foundations.
But the foundation has also been criticized for accepting — and not always disclosing — donations from foreign governments, organizations and individuals. Among major foreign donors have been the governments of Norway, Australia, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany and Kuwait. On August 9, Judicial Watch, a conservative website, reported on a 2009 email in which a Clinton Foundation executive directed top aides to Hillary Clinton to put a major foundation donor in touch with the State Department’s “substance person” on Lebanon.
Like other nonprofits, the Clinton Foundation claims to have a dramatic impact. It cites among its successes:
— 11.5 million people in more than 70 countries have access to deeply discounted HIV/AIDS medications.
— 105,000 farmers in Malawi, Rwanda and Tanzania have received climate-smart agronomic training, leading to higher yields and improved market access.
— More than 31,000 American schools are providing 18 million children with healthy food choices in an effort to eradicate childhood obesity.
— Members of the Clinton Global Initiative community have made more than 3,500 commitments to action, improving the lives of over 430 million people in 180 countries.
Minassian said the foundation's impact is verifiable.
“We’re very rigorous about data to measure” impact, he said.
But not everything the Clinton Foundation has undertaken has aided its intended beneficiaries. As The Washington Post reported in June, the foundation’s work in Haiti “has been a mix of success, disappointment and controversy.” And Minassian cited a recent internal report that showed 11 percent of “commitments” made by the CGI community to date have remained unfulfilled, largely because of a lack of funding.
The political controversy centers on whether large donors to the foundation sought to buy influence or access to Clinton and her aides while she was secretary of state. A recent investigation by the Associated Press showed that more than half the people outside the government who met with Clinton while she was secretary had given money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the foundation.
Clinton has dismissed the report and other accusations of influence buying. Newly released emails show that while some Clinton aides were asked for favors, there is no evidence that they were granted or that Clinton herself was involved.
On Monday, Trump demanded that an independent prosecutor investigate the foundation, saying the FBI could not be trusted to do the job. Several other organizations and media outlets have called for the foundation’s closure or transfer to another charity.
In response to the growing controversy, Bill Clinton announced this week that he'd step down from the board of the foundation and stop fundraising for the organization and that the foundation would no longer accept foreign donations if his wife won the November presidential election. In addition, the Clinton Global Initiative will cease to operate in September, according to Minassian, adding that it "has achieved its goal."
WATCH: Clinton Foundation Raises Billions to Help People Worldwide
The foundation is looking to current partners to take on some of its programs, but it has no intention of closing immediately, Minassian said.
“There is no reason to needlessly hurt people," he said, simply because "we’re getting political criticism, which has nothing to do with our philanthropic work.”