Former president Bill Clinton closed a major chapter of his post-presidential life on Wednesday, marking the end of his foundation’s glitzy, three-day philanthropic confab that had become a hallmark of its work.
“This has been, I believe, a profound advance in the conduct and impact of modern philanthropy,” Clinton said as he closed the final Clinton Global Initiative event in New York. “But I think it's fair to say that none of us who were there at the beginning could have fully foreseen it.”
CGI, which was founded in 2005, had become the networking event of choice for corporations, nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations and wealthy philanthropists.
This year, however, much of the usual glitz was gone — though celebrity staples like U2 lead singer Bono were still in attendance, and actor Ben Affleck helped close out the event.
Also absent were Hillary Clinton and President Obama, both of whom skipped the event for the second year in a row.
Even in their absence, electoral politics loomed large.
The Clinton Foundation as a whole is preparing to launch a wholesale restructuring of its operations if Hillary Clinton becomes president. But the change that will occur regardless of Hillary Clinton's electoral prospects is that CGI will be no more, winding down its operations by the end of the year.
At panels this week, speakers openly mused about Bill Clinton’s potential future as “first gentleman” and defended the foundation’s work from its critics.
“I have been a proud member of CGI since 2005. I have witnessed its unique practical and measurable contributions in the world, the opportunities it created for marginalized voices to be heard and how it helped push social issues otherwise ignored into the limelight,” said Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International, at a panel earlier this week. “This may be the last annual meeting, but the work and the spirit of President Clinton’s vision and the CGI committed community will live on forever.”
That defense of an event once frequented by a bipartisan group of political dignitaries has been made necessary by the ongoing controversy over Hillary Clinton's private email server. The released emails from her time at the State Department revealed efforts by foundation staff members to secure favors from Clinton's staff at the State Department. While there is little evidence that those favors were granted, Clinton's opponent, Donald Trump, has seized on it to accuse the foundation of "pay-to-play."
“The Clinton Foundation is at its heart a corrupt enterprise that masks its true mission of empowering and enriching the Clintons and their cronies by performing charitable works," said Steven Cheung, director of rapid response for the Trump campaign. "There is no defense for the Clinton Foundation’s unethical, conflict-of-interest-laden relationship with Hillary Clinton’s State Department, where access and official acts were bestowed upon major donors."
"At the end of the day, the Clinton Foundation presents an unprecedented and unacceptable conflict of interest that would badly compromise a Hillary Clinton White House, and that problem is only getting bigger by the day,” he added.
Nevertheless, Clinton launched into a forceful defense of the partnership "model" of philanthropy founded by CGI that he said would be its enduring legacy, in addition to the more than 430 million people counted as beneficiaries of philanthropy that started at CGI over the years.
"Whoever heard of paying a membership fee to be able to spend more money or spend more time," Clinton said. "There was this profound hunger to be given a chance to do something that could have a real impact.
"They didn't want to be taken for a ride; they wanted to know how they could do something that would have a real impact. So that's how CGI started," he added.
And so for 12 years, CGI has piggybacked on the foreign dignitaries and other leaders gathered in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meetings. Its staff has ballooned to handle a range of tasks including recruiting members, helping to develop partnerships and ensuring that pledged money is actually spent. Most of those people will be out of work by the end of the year.
Other changes that could come to the foundation if Clinton is elected include the spinoff of a signature program, the Clinton Health Access Initiative, that worked to reduce drug prices around the world, beginning with HIV/AIDS medication.
Clinton did not directly address his critics, but he gave an overall defense of the motivations behind the foundation in the face of accusations by their political adversaries that the foundation served as a source of financial enrichment for the Clintons. CGI, Clinton said, is about "building a culture of possibility" that can be deployed to solve the world's most difficult and pressing problems.
And despite beginning the week with the suggestion that in its final day CGI would not become a "nostalgia trip," Bill Clinton did just that. He listed off country after country and initiative after initiative that he had participated in and visited in his post-presidential years, starting the stories with the words "I remember."
After a few minutes he warned the crowd that "just a couple more" were coming before he was finished.
When he walked off the stage many minutes later, he was greeted with an extended standing ovation.