News and analysis
September 24, 2015

Clinton Foundation Kicks Off Marquee Conference With Shalala at the Helm

Dieu Nalio Chery, AP Images

This weekend's Clinton Global Initiative meeting will include millions of dollars in new pledges to advance global development work, according to Donna Shalala, foundation president.

The Clinton Foundation’s marquee international-development conference in New York, which kicks off Saturday, will include billions of dollars in new pledges to advance global development work, according to foundation officials.

This year, the Clinton Global Initiative meeting overlaps with the United Nations General Assembly, during which U.N. members will formalize the world’s post-2015 development agenda. It includes 17 sustainable-development goals, among them eradicating hunger, ensuring access to education, and advancing gender equality.

In a telephone interview with The Chronicle on Thursday, the president of the Clinton Foundation, Donna Shalala, declined to give specifics but said new pledges from her organization and its partners align closely with the objectives laid out by the U.N.

"It is a huge weekend in which hundred of millions of dollars will be committed, which will affect million of lives around the world," Ms. Shalala said.

Commitments from the initiative's launch in 2005 through mid-2014 totaled $103 billion, according to the Clinton Foundation.

Bill Clinton established the Clinton Global Initiative in 2005. The annual September meeting quickly became a marquee event for the foundation, attracting Nobel Prize laureates, company leaders, and philanthropists. The event is fueled in no small part by the magnetism of the Clinton family itself, whose visibility has been augmented this year by Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president.

Conspicuous Absence

In addition to Bill and Chelsea Clinton, this year’s speakers include Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank; Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft; and Ursula Burns, chief executive of Xerox Corporation.

Absent will be at least one high-profile individual. President Barack Obama, who has been every year since entering the White House, is not scheduled to attend.

Ms. Shalala has attended the Clinton Global Initiative every year since its inception, but this will be her first since taking the reins at the foundation. A longtime friend of the Clintons, she started the job in June after 14 years as president of the University of Miami.

When Ms. Shalala arrived in New York, she found what she described as a very complex organization, packed with talent.

"There are some things I can fine-tune, there is no question about that," said Ms. Shalala, adding that her first big hire will be a chief operating officer.

"In many ways we were a start-up, and now we are a very mature organization," she said. "I want to make sure as we transition with new donors they are very comfortable with all the things we are doing."

She assumed the leadership of the Clinton Foundation on the heels of months of withering scrutiny about its donors rolls and financial disclosures. Critics focused their spotlight particularly on gifts from foreign individuals and governments, questioning whether they were buying good will from a possible future president.

In response, the Clinton Foundation said it would no longer accept money from all but a half-dozen foreign governments friendly with the United States. In July, the foundation released the first of what are to be quarterly updates of gifts and grants. The next update is slated for release in October, Ms. Shalala said.

Boosting Transparency

The steps taken to bolster transparency were the right ones, Ms. Shalala said.

"I am going around and seeing the donors myself — as many as I can fit into my schedule — and sitting and talking to them about what we’re doing with their money, but also addressing any concerns that they may have."

She said she heard few complaints.

"One thing donors have said to me is, you have got to have a simpler way of explaining what you are doing, even though what you are doing is very complex and all over the world," Ms. Shalala said.

She has also spent time meeting with fellow foundation leaders at institutions including the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, she said.

The Clinton Foundation had $294 million in total revenue in 2013, according to its most recent annual report. It received $92 million in grants. There are no imminent shifts in funding or areas of focus. Ms. Shalala’s chief short-term goal is to make sure the organization remains dynamic, she said.

As for Hillary Clinton, Ms. Shalala hasn’t seen the Democratic candidate hopeful since Ms. Shalala was announced as the foundation’s new head in March.

"She has made it very clear that there is going to be total separation between the two, and we have kept to that," Ms. Shalala said.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative drew $103 billion in new pledges. That figure was the cumulative amount raised from 2005 through mid-2014.

An earlier version also quoted Donna Shalala as saying "billions of dollars will be committed" during the weekend event. The foundation says the correct amount is "hundreds of millions of dollars."

Also, the $92 million mentioned in the article was the amount the foundation received in 2013, not the amount given.

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