The brand of Clinton

Updated: Sep 28 2007, 03:59am hrs
Anyone who thought that his wifes run for the presidency would cause Bill Clinton to avoid the limelight has been proved utterly wrong. September began with the publication of the former presidents book, Giving, about how each of us can change the world, and will end this week as he takes centre stage at a celebration of philanthropy self-effacingly called the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). There is no stopping the man once nicknamed the comeback kid. Having left the White House under something of a cloud, he has since transformed himself into one of the hottest brands in the booming business of giving away money.

This is a remarkable piece of rebranding, to say the least, for a man never blessed with spare cash to give. I entered the White House with the lowest net worth of any president in the 20th century, and I left it $10 million-12 million in debt, Mr Clinton says. Speaking fees have helped of late, but only a bit. His genius has been to get other people to attach his name to their moneylike a sort of philanthropic version of Donald Trumpto increase its impact.

As with Mr Trump, the Clinton brand is not to everyones taste. But it is proving valuable in the philanthropic world. Distance from office restores and even adds to the lustre. So does distance from home: the Clinton name is probably strongest abroad, not least in places such as Africa where the need for philanthropy is arguably greatest. Many people, especially business leaders, love to be pictured with the former president, perhaps hoping that some of his charisma will rub off on them. Powerful people take his calls. And his famous wonkiness may enable philanthropists to find more effective ways to give money.

The impact of the Clinton brand has been increased considerably by its institutionalisation in the Clinton Foundation. Despite its name, this is really a non-governmental organisation, not a classic grant-making foundation, though there are plans to raise an endowment. It takes to a new level the post-presidential activism pioneered by Jimmy Carterthough the Carter brand occupies a specialist niche by comparison with the Clinton brands mass-market appeal. Founded in 1997 to oversee the building of the Clinton Presidential

Library, the foundation is now a global organisation that both runs programmes in areas such as fighting HIV/AIDS, poverty and climate change, and also helps other philanthropists develop programmes of their own.

Mr Clinton has not reinvented philanthropy, as some claim, but he does espouse a businesslike approach to giving money that is now fashionable among the new rich. He calls these philanthropists bleeding-heart cheapskates: they are not naive, they dont want to waste a lot of money, they like low administrative overhead, they measure pretty ruthlessly for return.

Mr Clintons greatest success so far has been cutting the price of anti-retroviral drugs for AIDS victims in poor countries. This involved negotiating bulk-purchase agreements with generic drugmakers. Although critics say that an arrangement of this sort was on the cards before Mr Clinton got involved, at the very least he accelerated it, benefiting many people. Now he is trying to repeat this trick to mitigate climate change by co-ordinating bulk-purchase agreements between the governments of some of the worlds biggest cities and makers of low-energy products.

Partnership is the essence of brand Clinton. Anti-retrovirals are supplied to poor children jointly with the Childrens Investment Fund Foundation of Chris Hohn, a hedge-fund boss. In 2006 the Clinton Hunter Development Initiative to promote sustainable growth in Africa launched with $100 million from Sir Tom Hunter, a British billionaire. This year brought the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative to create alternative jobs in mining communities: $100 million from Frank Giustra, a mining mogul, inspired matching sums from Lukas Lundin and Carlos Slim of Mexico, the worlds richest man. This ought to be a multi-billion-dollar effort, says Mr Clinton. Twenty-four other mining firms want to contribute, so this could get very big in a hurry.

The CGI, a sort of Philanthropy Oscars launched in 2005, is Mr Clintons annual pulpit to evangelise a philanthropic boom that he says is still only in its early stages. The CGIs 1,000 participants65% from businessmust pledge some good work, which they must accomplish or show progress, if they are to be invited back. Most honour their pledges, Mr Clinton insists, though it is hard to be sure since there is no naming and shaming. He says that 14 people were not allowed back last year.

Who profits

One controversial aspect of the CGI is that many of the pledgesaccording to the foundation there have been nearly 600 so far, worth almost $10 billionare to do things that boost the profits of the companies concerned, such as Wal-Mart. In his recent book, Supercapitalism, Robert Reich, Mr Clintons labour secretary, attacked his old boss for praising firms for doing what is in their self-interest. Mr Clinton concedes that this raises tricky questions, but says he will highlight a for-profit pledge if it is likely to generate significant public good. If Wal-Mart really does sell 100 million compact fluorescent bulbs and people buy them, and screw them in, and use them, it will have the CO2 impact of taking 700,000 cars off the road, he says.

Mr Clinton insists he will continue his philanthropic work even if he becomes First Spousethough some things would have to change. In particular, he would have to be more transparent. Now we dont have to publish all of our donors, for example, and if Hillary became president, I think there would be all these questions about whether people would try to win favour with her by giving money to me, he says. You know it wouldnt work, and I dont think they would.

Still, there are legitimate questions. But given the power of Mr Clintons personal brand, that transparency may be a price worth paying.

The Economist Newspaper Limited 2007