What do the Clinton charities actually do and where does their money go?

Charities tied to the Clinton family have received seemingly endless scrutiny throughout the presidential campaign. They’ve been accused of wasting funds, offering access to donors and even serving as a personal “piggy bank” for the Clinton family. As a result, the largest arm of their charitable organization this week said it would become and independent organization if Hillary Clinton is elected president.

The scrutiny of the Clintons’ charities has extended to Trump’s much smaller foundation as well, including a just-announced investigation by the New York attorney general and a series by The Washington Post.

As a researcher focused on nonprofit finances, I am not accustomed to seeing such widespread interest in the sources and uses of funds by charities. Even if often wrapped up in political rancor, the public interest in the Clinton family’s charities provides an opportunity to look closely at what they actually are, what they do and how their money is used.

While the inner workings of the organization are left to insiders, we fortunately have access to public financial disclosures that help provide answers to these questions. As we will see, the answers reveal an interesting and complex organization that may warrant critique but also deserves credit for its ambition and innovation.

What are the Clinton charities?

We start with what organizations make up the network of Clinton charities.

First up is the Clinton Family Foundation, which was set up in 2001 as a private foundation to direct the family’s own personal giving but doesn’t engage in any charitable activities of its own.

It acts like any other private foundation in that the family makes donations to it, and the organization (over time) disburses funds to operating public charities.

From 2010 to 2014, the Clintons gave US$10.2 million of their income to the Family Foundation, which disbursed $9.8 million to charities over the same period. Of that, $2.86 million (29 percent) went to initiatives tied to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, the main operating public charity they founded in 1998. The remaining $6.96 million went to a variety of charities, both local and national, aimed at varied causes ranging from education to health care to the environment.

The Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation is essentially the “parent” organization of various initiatives and offshoots, a few of which have been (at times) legally distinct from yet remain controlled by the parent. This group of organizations, which includes the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) and the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership (CGEP), is collectively called “The Clinton Foundation.”

So what does the Clinton Foundation do?

The activities of the Clinton Foundation are a source of many misconceptions, which is understandable given the wide range of them.

For starters, it’s important to stress that the Clinton Foundation (unlike the Family Foundation) is an operating public charity, which means (1) it relies heavily on donations from the general public, and (2) it does not primarily act to disburse funds to other charities but rather engages in direct “on-the-ground” services.

The first point is noteworthy because the Clintons’ personal giving of about $2.86 million to the foundation accounted for just 0.4 percent of its $807 million in contributions from 2010 to 2014.

Other funders include individuals (Gateway cofounder Theodore W. Waitt and former Formula One champion Michael Schumacher), foundations (Gates and Rockefeller), businesses (Coca-Cola and Barclays) and even foreign governments (Norway, Australia and Saudi Arabia).

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