The Fierce Assault on Philanthropy

I don’t know much about the Clinton Foundation. My knowledge is limited to what I read online. I do not seem to be alone. Two weeks ago the Trump camp broke what Trump calls “the biggest political scandal of our time” referring to alleged illegal dealings by the foundation. As public memory of political scandals like Watergate recedes, the claim was his to make. No one objected.

For two weeks, Trump and the alt-right have portrayed the Clinton Foundation as a sleazy slush fund that allowed foreign donors to buy a seat at the table when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. They also accused the Clintons of using the foundation to boost their speaking fees, which they in turn pumped into their personal accounts. Trump’s base went into a frenzy while centrist Republicans like Joe Scarborough and his “Morning Joe” pundits demanded the foundation shut down before week’s end.

As the story was unfolding I kept waiting for the Clinton Foundation to respond. Was their public relations staff missing in action? Were they too distracted by the campaign to care about the foundation? Were other foundations afraid to come to their defense?

PERSPECTIVE: Above the Campaign Din

Ironically, it was James Carville who saved the day. In his inimitable way, he praised the foundation’s programs and scorned the naysayers all in one breath. A few days later, former President Bill Clinton lashed out. It was too late. Founded in 1997, the foundation’s almost 20 years of domestic and global work has been turned into a symbol for greed and treachery. Almost overnight, it became synonymous with “pay to play.”

Calls for the foundation’s instant shutdown are disturbing. Under the title “11 Calls to Shutdown the Clinton Foundation by Left-Wing Media,”, ground zero for the alt-right and home to Trump’s new campaign chief Steve Bannon, quotes articles from the New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and USA Today. Ryan Grim, the Huffington Post’s Washington bureau chief, mocked donors with his tweet “If you shut down the Clinton Foundation how would the world’s oligarchs achieve their main goal in life, eradicating disease and poverty??” Slate senior writer Josh Voorhees wrote, “As long as Hillary Clinton is either running for the White House or running the country from inside it, she and her husband should temporarily shutter their foundation.” The most brutal call came from New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait, who is quoted as saying, “The Clinton Foundation needs to die.”

Some media sources even offered up ways to get the Clintons out. USA Today’s editorial board offered “the only way to eliminate the odor surrounding the foundation is to wind it down and put it in mothballs, starting today, and transfer its important charitable work to another large American charity such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.” Demands that a foundation with a 20-year track record and hundreds of domestic and global programs transfer its assets and programming instantaneously to another foundation is chilling. It demonstrates that even powerful institutions may be destroyed by unsubstantiated claims of “pay for play.” To date, there is no evidence that any of the foundation’s actions or its dealings with Hillary Clinton’s State Department were illegal.

Donors give for a myriad of reasons: commitment to the issue, visibility, access to other supporters, naming opportunities, and sometimes just being seen prominently at benefit galas. That’s the reality of philanthropy. Last year I was walking down the street behind two very well dressed women. One remarked on the success of their charity event the night before. The other replied, “It wasn’t successful, Bill Cunningham never showed up. I promised a few donors they would be in ‘Evening Hours.’ We failed.”

If the current pile-up on the Clinton Foundation isn’t stopped, philanthropy in this country is in trouble. In the post 9/11 years, we witnessed stepped up surveillance of donations to Muslim organizations that were accused of funneling money to terrorists. I don’t know how the donation tracking affected charitable giving to such organizations, but I am betting that support plummeted. The danger of the current attacks on the Clinton Foundation is that donors will pull back their contributions to avoid being dragged into the ugly fray fueled by Trump and the alt-right. What would be criminal is for this scandal to shut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the causes the foundation now supports.

Gina Quattrochi has been CEO of Bailey House, the nation’s first AIDS housing organization, since 1991. This article expresses her personal views.