In a public letter to leaders in the foundation and nonprofit world, Clinton Foundation chief Donna Shalala announced recently that the organization will significantly scale back much of its programming. “Regardless of the [election] results in November,” Shalala wrote, the Foundation will suspend the Clinton Global Initiative and, if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, the Foundation is prepared to “transition [international] projects to partner organizations […] or spin them off into independent entities.” In addition, the Foundation will stop accepting foreign and corporate donations and former president Bill Clinton plans on resigning from the board. 

Speaking with the Chronicle of Philanthropy shortly after the letter went public, Ms. Shalala explained that many foundations do something similar when scaling down operations, alerting colleagues ahead of time so that gaps in the institutional landscape might be more effectively filled in. She added that her counterparts have generally been “very supportive” of the Foundation’s plans. A number of the Foundation’s flagship programs—combating childhood obesity and opioid abuse, for instance, or expanding health access—will live on as autonomous operations. 

This announcement raises the troubling cynicism which has for so long bedeviled the Clintons’ philanthropic efforts. Certainly those critics who allege that Clinton has used the massive foundation as a vehicle for fundraising, favor-dealing, and reputational rehabilitation gearing up to her inevitable presidential run will not be reassured by the news that the former Secretary of State is phasing down operations now that that goal seems within reach. The point of Shalala’s letter seems on some level to be merely to dispel this idea: the Foundation boss repeatedly stresses how painful the transition has been while reaffirming the group’s “dedication to the people who benefit from our work.” 

Of course, we mustn’t nitpick. If Clinton were to win the election, the Foundation would obviously need to undergo some significant restructuring one way or another. But perhaps the lesson of the Clinton Foundation’s scale-down is that ‘personality foundations’ such as these are inherently unstable, tied as they are to the ups and downs of their namesake’s fortunes. In philanthropy, as in theater, the show must go on; but things would be going a bit more smoothly now if the Foundation weren’t so closely associated with Mrs. Clinton, and all the political baggage she brings to the picture. 


Photo credit: U.S. Department of State via VisualHunt