A Fond Farewell to the Clinton Global Initiative, which Pioneered a new Model of Philanthropy

After 11 years, the final annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) wrapped last week in New York. An entity that helped carve a new form of philanthropy will shut down. But will other organizations emerge to fill the wide gap it leaves behind?

Over the past year there has been increased scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation coinciding with Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the US presidency. What will ultimately become of the Clinton Foundation remains to be seen, but the termination of CGI suggests the foundation may be looking to cut back or wind down all of its bigger initiatives.

In many ways this is not surprising, although the shutting down of CGI is bittersweet for many of the people involved. Still, with all the media attention circling the politics of the Clinton Foundation, it is important to recognize that the positive legacy CGI is leaving behind will likely endure throughout the development community.

A New Approach to Philanthropy

President Bill Clinton with Mayor Sadiq Khan, President Mauricio Macri, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and Former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala backstage before the #CGI2016 opening session on Partnering for Global Prosperity.
President Bill Clinton with Mayor Sadiq Khan, President Mauricio Macri, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and Former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala backstage before the CGI2016 opening session on Partnering for Global Prosperity.

Started in 2005 as an experiment of the Clinton Foundation in bringing together leaders from different sectors – government, corporations and NGOs – to advance humanitarian assistance and development projects, over the past 11 years it has served as a forum for launching thousands of commitments impacting lives in an estimated 180 countries.

Unlike traditional foundations that distribute grants to potential partners, CGI works as a matchmaker between its membership. By connecting different proposals, both large and small, with potential donors, members are able to develop new programs using expertise from different sectors. The result is a portfolio of both traditional and innovative programs to address development challenges in a variety of fields, from global health to supply chain management. By adding an accountability and reporting component to the platform, the rate of fulfilled commitments and pledges is far higher than is typically seen.

This seems pretty straightforward today, but when CGI first started in 2005 it was a bit of an anomaly. The development world has embraced public-private partnerships in the last few years, but few other platforms can rival the success the CGI platform has had during its tenure.

Given this, there are concerns about what will happen to all these commitments now that CGI is shutting down. Even though there was a heavy tone of retrospection during this final annual meeting, over 100 new commitments were announced during the three day meeting. Many of these commitments had already been in the incubation stage for over a year, meaning considerable work had already gone into them before CGI’s termination was announced. Many commitments from previous years are also ongoing, leaving the question of what will happen to the full CGI portfolio once the initiative itself is wound down.

UN Dispatch spoke with Elsa Palanza, director of commitments for CGI, about what is in store for the 3,600 commitments made over the past 12 years. The good news is that while CGI is winding down, it is not disappearing entirely. The details still need to be worked out but it is expected that a small set of staff will continue on to support the existing portfolio in the years to come.

“One of the things we have learned over the years is that the really important work happens at the beginning, when members first show up and are interested in making a commitment,” said Palanza. “We do a lot of work with them at the outset to make sure those commitments are in a really great shape in order to be finalized and counted among our portfolio.”

That work means the commitments made should continue as originally planned, regardless of that status of CGI. Since CGI acts primarily as a matchmaker and incubator for new ideas, once the commitments are made, the work rests with the members themselves. “The work can and will go on the part of the members that have made these commitments to action,” explained Palanza, “and we will find a way to keep the portfolio side going, meaning that we can get updated information from them.”

That is good news for the development projects already underway. But CGI will also have a lasting legacy for others. By bringing together new partnerships and demonstrating the positive role that the private sector can have in development, CGI showed what could be done by thinking about development differently.

“We have seen that CGI has had a tremendous impact in the field. People are coming together in ways that were not the norm ten, twelve years ago with partnerships, working cross-sector, all those things. That is something that has really been cultivated at CGI,” reflected Francesca Ernst, deputy director of communications for the Clinton Foundation.

Palanza agreed. “I’d say the happy news is I’ve actually had more calls from people than ever before asking for advice on how they can mimic the commitments model,” she said. “I think that is a signal that people are recognizing that if you have this action-driving mandate associated with just getting people together, that we can accomplish a lot more. I think this brilliant mechanism that really was quite simple but quite profound that was put in place is a real testament of what we have been about all this time. So I certainly hope people pick up on that and go for it.”