News and analysis
May 05, 2015

Donna Shalala Ready for ‘Messy’ Job Leading Clinton Foundation

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The incoming head of the Clinton Foundation said Monday that her decades of experience handling "complex" jobs made her a good fit to run the charity, which has come under fire for accepting contributions from undisclosed foreign donors.

"It is not that I am unflappable, but I love messy institutions," said Donna Shalala, who as president of the University of Miami raised $3 billion and navigated a two-year NCAA investigation.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Ms. Shalala said she uses the word "messy" to describe some institutions not because there has been any wrongdoing but because they are complex and multidimensional, like the Clinton Foundation.

"My cup of tea is very complex situations and very complex institutions and helping people to kind of think through their strategies and working their way out of issues," Ms. Shalala said.

The incoming foundation president — she takes the helm next month — declined to comment on current controversies at the foundation, which includes scrutiny of contributions from some foreigners while Hillary Clinton was serving as secretary of state and questions about whether such donations were parlayed into favors by association with the powerful Clinton family. In an interview on the "Today" show on Monday, Bill Clinton denied any wrongdoing. The foundation has said it will restrict donations to six Western nations.

Ms. Shalala said that she has been in the Clinton Foundation offices just once and has not communicated with its staff except to discuss some routine personnel matters. The arms length is intentional. She described herself as someone with "tunnel vision," focused on the task at hand.

"Once I get there I will take full responsibility and do what I need to do. But I can literally only do one job at a time, and finishing up here is not easy," she said by telephone from her office in Coral Gables, FL.

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A veteran university administrator and public servant, Ms. Shalala has led the University of Miami since 2001. She announced in September that she would step down at the end of the academic year. In March, she was named the new president and CEO of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation. She will replace acting CEO Maura Pally.

Ms. Shalala is a longtime friend of the Clintons. Among other things, she served as Secretary of Health and Human Services under then-President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001.

It was Hillary Clinton who offered her the job to lead the family’s namesake foundation, Ms. Shalala said.

"I knew them before they were married, actually," she said of the Clintons. "I think the world of them. I had a wonderful time working for them. I am happy to go up and see what I can do to help."

The foundation reported total revenue of $148.8 million on its 2013 Form 990, the most recent available. It is smaller than other institutions she has run, said Ms. Shalala, but added, "It is important, and it makes important contributions."

The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s 2013 salary survey reported that Ms. Shalala was the highest-paid women nonprofit executive in 2012, making $869,520. That same year, Clinton Foundation CEO Bruce Lindsay made $385,046, according to the Form 990.

Officially, Ms. Shalala said, she is taking an 18-month leave from the university to work for the foundation. The university has created an endowed chair for her, which she expects to return to, she said.

Ms. Shalala has never led a foundation, but she is a proven fundraiser. At the University of Miami, she helped raise a total of $3 billion with two back-to-back campaigns. The first started right after 9/11 and the second on the heels of the 2008-9 recession, decisions that took "guts," she said.

Key to the university’s fundraising was her staff’s ability to say to donors that their gifts would move the university up in rankings and create a great medical center.

"Guess what? We delivered," Ms. Shalala said. "People like investing in winners."

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.