What Might a Clinton Presidency Mean for Philanthropy and Nonprofits?

If Hillary Clinton wins the White House, she’ll take office with a deeper appreciation of philanthropy and nonprofits than any past president. 

This is a woman who started her career at the Children’s Defense Fund, and most recently, helped lead a sprawling philanthropic operation with her husband and daughter. In between, she was involved in myriad nonprofit efforts and initiatives. Clinton knows this sector and its leadership class intimately. She’s also seen firsthand the big problems that can come from a lack of transparency in philanthropy, amid the rise of what I’ve called a “shadow giving system” — exemplified by the highly opaque Clinton Foundation. 

What might all this mean for the social sector during a Hillary Clinton administration? A few things.

For starters, partnerships between government and the “independent sector” would likely further expand. Civil society institutions were key partners for the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative, while President Obama broke new ground in working with private foundations — most notably through My Brother’s Keeper. Business has also been at the table in some of the Obama partnerships, and we’ve lately seen the emergence of a more robust tri-sectoralism that brings together government, corporations, and nonprofits to tackle big problems.

Quite apart from Hillary’s unique background, there are underlying reasons why tri-sectoralism will only grow more appealing over the next decade. One is the growing inability of the federal government to afford new initiatives on its own. Discretionary domestic spending is on a steady downward trajectory (as a share of GDP), and is slated to fall to the lowest levels since Eisenhower by the early 2020s. But Washington doesn’t just lack walking-around money to try new things, it also lacks the ability to agree on much at all amid deep polarization. That’s unlikely to change until after the 2020 Census and redistricting, if it even changes then. 

As a result of these realities — scarce resources and divided government — Hillary Clinton would face bigger obstacles to getting stuff done through normal channels than any president in recent memory. Partnerships with philanthropy and business would offer a way to enact some of her ideas, albeit on a much smaller scale than through the federal government.   

There would be no shortage of potential partners for the Clinton administration to work with. While Washington faces ever more belt tightening, the ranks of major philanthropists with big resources will keep swelling. Quite a few, like Bloomberg, are keen on partnering with government as a way to leverage their money. We see lots of this at the local level, like around parks and arts institutions, but the national potential remains under-realized. Many corporate funders are in this same headspace. They’re thinking more strategically these days, as we often report, and are getting involved in a growing number of partnerships. 

Now imagine a White House that, as never before, becomes a convener of of new alliances linking all these eager actors in a steady stream of ambitious projects touching on a wide range of domestic and global issues. That’s what we might be looking at under a Clinton presidency. 

If the model I’m describing sounds familiar, it’s because it’s similar to what the Clinton Foundation does. The power of this operation has little to do with its financial muscle and everything to do with an ability to convene players, knitting them together into ongoing collaborations that tackle large problems (with varying results.) 

Putting this model on steroids could yield big dividends in the hands of a president who has many friends in both business and the nonprofit world. But it’s equally easy to imagine the pitfalls here, since we’ve already witnessed them with the Clinton Foundation. The biggest problem is that these partnerships offer an avenue for private donors to curry favor with public officials, with money flowing in non-transparent ways with motives that are hard to pinpoint. 

Whatever the truth regarding allegations of the Clinton Foundation and influence peddling, it is safe to say that today, no national politician better understands the problems surrounding transparency and philanthropy than Hillary Clinton. She’s seen firsthand how the perception of scandal can hang over nonprofit activities that involve wealthy individuals and corporations. If she’s learned anything from her harsh experience with the Clinton Foundation — which, by the way, is by no means over (just wait till the fall) — it’s that the philanthropic sector needs to embrace more sunshine at a moment when all elites are distrusted. 

Which leads to my final point: Hillary Clinton could well be the reformer that philanthropy and the nonprofit sector needs. She’s the friendly figure who can speak from experience about the perils of letting a shadow giving system grow unchecked. She’ll understand why business as usual is not okay, and can coax leaders of the social sector to back some modest reforms. I’ll say more about what Clinton could do along these lines in a future post.

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering how Donald Trump thinks about philanthropy, check out our post below on his record to date so far in this area. It’s pretty short.