Clinton Foundation President Donna Shalala talks finances, focus and the future

Donna Shalala, president of the Clinton Foundation. Photo by: National Academy of Sciences / CC BY-NC-SA

Describing the past 18 months as “intense” and “challenging,” Clinton Foundation President Donna Shalala was eager to reassure that the foundation is “alive and well and thriving” in a call with a small group of reporters on Friday. “Rumors of our demise are greatly exaggerated,” she said.

Changes outlined by former President Bill Clinton last week in his annual letter will allow the foundation to refocus certain programs and make new investments, including giving it the ability to add new initiatives, Shalala said. Several programs will spin off and become independent, and the foundation will focus on some new issues within the United States.

Fundraising will also be a key priority in 2017, after two years of reduced activities during the U.S. presidential campaign, according to Shalala. This may include selected donations from foreign governments on a case-by-case basis.

Shalala spoke to reporters about the process of charting the foundation’s future. Much of the past year was spent assessing all of the foundation’s programs, through a variety of metrics depending on the specific program, and determining what was working and what was having the greatest impact.

Following President Donald Trump’s election victory, the foundation, led by former President Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, reflected on the assessments and made final decisions.

“What the president has outlined in his letter is obviously a re-energized Clinton Foundation and we think better focused and better positioned for the brave new world we’re going into. And that means this year we’ll build on what we know works and we’re going to try to scale up our existing programs and spin off a couple of the programs that have grown to maturity,” she said.

Shalala casts the foundation as an incubator, developing programs to a point of maturity where they have the staff, skills and funding to become their own entities. One example is The Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership, which is now large and mature enough, as well as financed sufficiently, to succeed on its own, Shalala said. The foundation has spun off programs before, most notably the Clinton Health Access Initiative, which works to tackle HIV/AIDS and provide anti-retroviral treatment.

While its main convening platform, the Clinton Global Initiative, has been dismantled, the foundation will continue to convene leaders from various sectors around specific issues. Last week, for example, the foundation hosted a meeting about water infrastructure issues, and it sees a need for more attention on the opioid epidemic in the United States.

Still, this doesn’t mean the foundation is shifting to become more domestic, Shalala said. The foundation will continue its work on climate issues with small island nations and support smallholder farmers through the Clinton Development Initiative. The foundation may look for future international opportunities as well, she said, though announcements on future programs are unlikely to come soon.

“It’s going to take a very careful look to make sure we can find a niche no one else is filling,” Shalala said. The foundation also wants to be nimble to respond, for example, to the next Ebola crisis and convene leaders to deliver solutions.

Any expansion will likely rely on stronger fundraising efforts. Revenue and donations were down in 2016 and 2015, which Shalala said was expected because the Clintons ceased fundraising for much of 2016 due to the presidential campaign. It was a “very challenging” year for fundraising, she said, though the foundation did meet and slightly exceed its $20 million target for discretionary funds, she said.

Former President Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton are now “re-engaged with the foundation,” Shalala said. Hillary Clinton has not made any announcements about what, if any, role she may play in the foundation.

“We’re thinking of different strategies for fundraising. The president still has a lot of friends out there and there are lots of people that want to support the work of the foundation,” she said.

That diversified strategy will include direct mail, events, and getting to know people, among other methods, Shalala said. Without the constraints of Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy or position as secretary of state, the foundation may also be accepting donations from foreign governments on a case-by-case basis and will continue working with existing partners, she said.  

The foundation has cut more than 100 employees, almost all related to shutting down the majority of CGI operations. There are no plans for further cuts, Shalala said, adding that she personally is not planning to go anywhere “in the foreseeable future.”

While Shalala focused on discussing the foundation’s future, she also spoke about some of the challenges of the past year, leading the organization through a barrage of attacks. It was at times a struggle to keep everyone in the organization together and focused. She said she “is used to being pounded on, but everyone else is not.” Her strategy, she said, has been to stay focused on the programs and keep talking to her staff.

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About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.