Not surprisingly, perhaps, this year's Clinton Global Initiative—held this past week amid the worst economic climate for philanthropy in decades—was not so much about big check-writing. It was more about seeing how well the large sums already fueling dozens of new projects are getting spent, and whether social-change advocates are creating, as Ashoka's Bill Drayton put it, "the revolutions we've been looking for." [Case in point: Brad Pitt's Making it Right Foundation, catalyzed at a CGI two years ago, played into this new sensibility, offering attendees a progress report that featured New Orleans' 9th Ward resident Dierdra Taylor—not Pitt—as its star. "You should see my dual-flush commode," the 43-year-old hospice worker gushed about the house that MIR built to replace the one she'd lost.]
Another difference? In past years, CGI showcased individual millionaires and billionaires, the Richard Bransons of the world, who would, in turn, use the CGI press room [with Bill Clinton in tow] to announce the big checks they'd just written to their favorite charities.
Not so this year. Despite a humorous turn by actor Ben Stiller as MC for CGI's Global Citizen Awards Thursday night, the CGI that ended Friday was decidedly low-wattage, if not at times somber. Even Ricky Martin, Nation blogger Ari Melber wrote, "did not sing, and did not dance, or flash his trademark grin" when he got up to talk briefly about the need to help children escape human trafficking. Even the attending CEOs, many from Wall Street, appeared to be more reserved. ["First #cgi09 that I've attended where corporate titans seemed (almost!) chastened on stage—perhaps even listening a bit," blogger Tom Watson tweeted from the press room.] Indeed, it was as if everyone had gotten the same memo about how, in this post-boom world, reinvention and collaboration would be the only sure ways to save their own organizations—if not philanthropy, itself—never mind the planet. [Said GE's CEO Jeff Immelt during a Thursday panel on public investment, underscoring this New World theme: "I just don't think we're going to wake up in a luxury world anymore, folks—not even in the U.S."]
To be sure, all the talk last year about the merits of single-donor, schmooze-heavy, write-a-check-on-the-spot philanthropy seemed hopelessly passe here this week, if not on life support—about as scarce in this crowd as Republicans and unescorted press. [Attendance this year topped 1,200 global heads of state, CEOs, celebrities, intellectuals and policymakers from 64 countries, a record.] "We don't have economies of scale in philanthropy around the world, and we need it," JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon told a Friday panel on financing. Agreed Judith Rodin, the CEO of Rockefeller Foundation, who spoke earlier in the week: "The philanthropy field hasn't been organized in a way that has made it easy for funders to find the right social investments."
But it was Bill Clinton who summed it up the best, parroting the campaign slogan that helped to put him into the White House more than a decade ago. "It still is, 'It's the economy, stupid,'" he said in an interview, "but it's now much more about the platform we create across sectors to make the economy work for change and humanity. The CGI model is five years old now, and it's evolving. I don't want to make any grandiose claims, but it seems to be working. We learn from each other. We need to leverage capital from across sectors and have a shared mechanism to achieve common goals—and some kind of accountability mechanism built in from one year to the next to make sure it keeps working. Philanthropy can't do that and it can't do it alone." Amen.
Among highlights from CGI's closing sessions:
* This year's participants made 284 commitments to change-making projects, with an estimated total value of more than $8 billion, about as much as the sums pledged last year.
* A panel moderated by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, a co-author with his wife of the just-released Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, gave a shout-out to Carlson, a travel company whose founder and chairman, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, is the only travel executive so far to sign the EPCAT Code of Conduct . The code pledges the company to avoid doing business with suppliers or related companies known to be enabling the trafficking of children. [Click here to see a video of that panel, "Building Human Capital."] One of the best soundbites of the day came from Queen Rania of Jordan, who told Kristof:
* Kailash Satyarthi, chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labor, told conferees attending a special panel on human trafficking that he was beaten and that two of his colleagues were shot to death in recent raids staged by his group to rescue children from garment supply factories in Nepal and Bangladesh. His remarks were followed by testimony from a woman who, along with her two children, was kidnapped and held for four years of forced labor. Louis CdeBaca, President Obama's chief diplomat to combat human trafficking, estimated that between 12 million and 27 million people are enslaved around the world and that some 90 percent of countries don't investigate trafficking. Many governments, he said, simply "look the other way." A fellow panelist, actress Julia Ormond—whose nonprofit, ASSET, was forged at CGI last year to pressure garment company supply chains to stop using children—called forced labor "one of the scourges of the century...I don't want to wear any piece of clothing that some kid had to die for." Later, Clinton gave activist Ruchira Gupta a Global Citizen Award. She had spent 18 months observing Bombay brothels to make her Emmy-winning 1997 documentary, Selling of Innocents before founding Apne Aap, an organization that combats sex trafficking with education and preventive programs in India.
* A session on social investment finance, moderated by CNBC Anchor Maria Bartiromo, explored the state of the global economy and what financial services firms can do to help lift the world's poor. "I think the finance industry is going through a very rapid rethink on sustainability," said JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. "Particularly now, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, people are thinking about the social purpose of banking." But Dimon acknowledged some hesitation, saying: "We don't have economies of scale in philanthropy around the world and we need it. Maybe NGOs should get together and think best practices" to attract more and larger investments. But Fazle Abed, founder and chairman of BRAC, urged Dimon and fellow panelist Peter Sands, the CEO of Standard Chartered, to do more. "We have not been ambitious enough to get people out of poverty fast enough," Abed said. "We're all thinking about small projects covering 30,000 to 40,000 people. We need larger programs. We need to scale up our efforts" and do more lending to small and midsized enterprises. Currently, said Abed, "there's a missing middle."
* CNN Founder Ted Turner, education and arts philanthropist Eli Broad, and Bob Wright, the former CEO of NBC all talked about their philanthropy work and how it differs from their former lives in the executive suite. Running a foundation, Broad said, means "you have to be nicer, more consensus-oriented, and you have to suffer more fools." Wright, founder and chairman of Autism Speaks, quipped that the "pay is a lot less" and it's harder to raise money in tough times. Only the outspoken Turner dodged the question entirely. "In 10 years, I've never had an argument with the United Nations," he said, referring to his current work as chief of the United Nations Foundation. "I wish I could say the same about my ex-wives."
* Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a closing speech outlining her initiative to promote food security around the world. "Since 2007, there have been riots over food in over 60 countries," she said. "...Instability rises as food becomes more scarce...The global food supply must increase by 50% in the next 20 years to meet demand...What affects some of us now could affect all of us tomorrow." A video, narrated by actor Matt Damon, explains Clinton's new program. Click here to see the video of the closing plenary session on Friday, which includes Secretary Clinton's speech (which starts at 13 minutes into the session).
* Brad Pitt [Make It Right Foundation] gave CGI attendees an update on his efforts to build new homes for the former residents of New Orleans' Katrina-ravaged lower 9th Ward. So far, Pitt said, the average electricity bill for one of the energy-efficient MIR homes is $35 a month—about one-fourth of what residents had been paying previously. The cost of building the homes also is dropping, Pitt said. By the time the project's 150 homes are completed some time next year, he said, the cost will be comparable to standard buildings. What's key, says Pitt, is that the 9th Ward project is becoming a template for what's possible all over the country. Said Pitt:
But the best part? Ninth Ward resident and MIR homeowner Dierdra Taylor, a CGI panelist with Pitt Thursday, said: "People are starting to return to the neighborhood now. Community is coming back." For more on MIR's work, see this video interview by The Economist with Tom Darden, MIR's executive director and its first volunteer:
—By Marcia Stepanek
(Photo, top, of bus passengers in Bagan, Myanmar by Dejan Suc for istock.com)