The Clinton Foundation isn't a "charity" in any normal sense of the word

Earlier today, Ed broke down the question of the many shady aspects of the Clinton Foundation and where their activities may or may not cross the line. There’s plenty to question for sure, but much of what was being addressed in that article are questions which get well down into the weeds. It seems to me that there are some far more fundamental issues which arise just by glancing at the behemoth foundation from the ten thousand foot level, and I’m not the first person to notice them.

Ed already noted that the Clinton Foundation itself takes in vast amounts of money while only spreading around a shockingly small percentage of it to, you know… charities. That’s a pretty bad sign to begin with, but Jonathan Tobin, asked the question, Is the Clinton initiative actually a charity? As part of the data he dug up, he takes Ed’s question one step further. Two of the biggest “charities” receiving largess from the foundation go to benefit… (wait for it) the Clintons.

The two largest items on its list of charitable expenditures are support for the Clinton Presidential Library and paying for the Clinton Global Initiative.

The Library is, like those edifices built to house the papers and glorify the memory of other presidents, a not-altogether-worthless endeavor. But it is a monument to the vanity and the legacy of the Clintons, not the sort of “good work” helping the impoverished of the Third World, as well as the women and the girls, Hillary Clinton is always telling us she’s out to save. It may be a non-profit institution but it is not a charity.

The Clinton Global Initiative is also not a charity. According to the New York Times, it’s a “glitzy annual gathering of chief executives, heads of state and celebrities.” Those who attend it may do charitable work. But their main purpose in attending is to see and be seen talking about being charitable. The same can be said of the event itself.

That brings us back to the question of the difference between “shady” and “criminal.” Reading Dr. James Joyner from Outside the Beltway, it looks like the Clintons have once again found a way to dance along the edges and keep their toes just on the other side of the line from qualifying for a stay in the Crowbar Motel. Not everything that’s unseemly and worthy of disdain is technically illegal.

My take is less harsh. There’s no need for the “technically” and “may” qualifiers here: there’s nothing even remotely problematic legally here and Tobin is quite right that the “donors know exactly what they are getting.” It’s an access game, with the Clintons selling both their celebrity and their power. While that might be ethically problematic in a different environment, it’s not obviously different from any of the rest of the selling of access that’s part and parcel of American national politics. Candidates and incumbents alike spend a great deal of their time schmoozing with the wealthy in order to finance their careers. That bothers me substantially but it’s not fixable at acceptable cost.

Additionally, my strong hunch is that the various Clinton charity-like institutions are not much different from those run by non-political celebrities like Bono’s ONE Foundation or Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation, which spend next to nothing on the causes they purportedly support. For that matter, the vast majority of charities are scams by Tobin’s standard, in that most of them spend virtually everything they raise on salaries, events, self-promotion, and the like and very little on feeding the poor, curing cancer, and other activities around which they fundraise.

That sounds about right. Clearly charities are, by definition, supposed to be non-profits. But conversely, not all non-profits are charities… in fact it’s likely that only a small percentage of them are. Many may serve a noble purpose, but they all share the common trait of figuring out ways to not pay taxes while large amounts of money are changing hands. When you mix politicians into a formula like that, you can smell trouble cooking like crap on a griddle.

The Clintons can serve as a warning to people considering donations to other charities, though. You have to dig a little deeper than the headlines a well positioned organization manages to garner. For example, Charity Watch actually gives the Clinton Foundation an A rating, but when you look at the criteria they use it’s easy to see why. One of the two leading indicators they score is the cost expended by a charity for every dollar they raise. In the case of the Clintons, they only spend three dollars on fundraising for every 100 dollars they take in. This makes sense, because they get so much free publicity from the media and have so many foreign governments lining up to dump money on them, they don’t need to solicit all that much. Other charities who don’t have the media essentially working for them for free as their unpaid cheerleading squad have to spend countless hours banging out phone calls and mailing out cards asking for donations. All of that costs money, and if you spend too much on it they downgrade your rating.

Similarly, the other main factor in the ratings is how much cash the charity spends on “programs” versus overhead. Again, the Clintons have it worked out so that their direct overhead as defined by Charity Watch only comes up to eleven percent of the take. But that’s where the ratings analysis stops. Everything else they spend goes in the “good column” and drives up their rating. What the analysis fails to do is take into account how many of those “programs” they are spending money on are actual charities where the needy are being helped. If that less tangible metric is factored in, the Clinton Foundation fails miserably.

Keep in mind here that we’re only talking about the actual activities of the foundation. If Hillary was trading influence with donors, that’s a separate question entirely. But as far as the organization itself goes, are the Clintons doing anything with their foundation cash which is punishable by law? As Joyner concludes, probably not. But does that mean that they are some cornucopia of good will helping the needy masses? Sure… if the needy in question are named Clinton.