Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton have collected as much as $11.7 million for their foundation by speaking at nonprofit events. The money came from 50 nonprofit groups, including universities, health research institutions and small charities.

The reasons nonprofits paid these speaking fees “ran the gamut,” according to our guest Kenneth Vogel, the Politico reporter who investigated fees paid to the Clinton Foundation. “[The nonprofits] just thought that having one of the Clintons come and speak would be such a draw for their galas that they’d be able to raise a ton of money from donors and prospects.”

“I don’t think the Clintons bring that much to a charitable cause,” says Doug White, Director of the Fundraising Management program at Columbia University’s School of Continuing Education. “They bring a lot of headlines, they bring a lot of buzz, they bring a lot of electricity for the moment. But when all is said and done and the lights are out, there are people still starving, there are people still homeless. All that’s happened is a whole bunch of money went in the wrong direction.”

If charities insist that it’s worthwhile to pay big speaker fees, White says they ought to provide data to prove it. “I hear a lot of things that are basically nothing more than empty clichés in defense of how organizations operate. I’d like to see some history and I’d like to see some numbers on that.”

Doug White (courtesy of Doug White)
Doug White (courtesy of Columbia University)

In his Politico story, Vogel writes that nonprofits have paid the Clinton Foundation anywhere from $10,000 to $500,000 to have a Clinton speak at their events. These types of fees are not unusual. For instance, Vice President Al Gore has reportedly collected $100,000 for lectures on global warming. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has earned up to $200,000 a pop for speeches he’s given since the September 11th attacks.

Vogel notes that nonprofits are not required to publicly share fundraising statistics in a detailed, granular way. If they did, outsiders would be able to independently analyze whether big speakers actually benefit charities.

Ken Vogel (Courtesy of Ken Vogel)
Ken Vogel (Courtesy of Ken Vogel)

In some cases, available data actually show a limited return. Vogel points to when Hillary Clinton spoke at a fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of Long Beach, California, in 2014. She charged $200,000 to speak, which she donated to her own foundation. Vogel says the Clinton event raised $100,000 total. “So paying $200,000 to raise $100,000. … Probably not that good a return on investment.” In contrast, Condoleezza Rice, who charged $60,000 to speak at the same event in 2009, donated almost all of that back to the organization. Vogel said Rice’s appearance helped gross a whole lot more for the Long Beach Boys & Girls Club than when it had Hillary Clinton come to speak.

White advises nonprofits to think twice before devoting big money to celebrity speakers. “If I could just say one thing to charities, around this country, anyway: Don’t get taken in by the feeling that the Clintons, or anybody else for that matter, are going to make all of the difference. You charities have a long, long road ahead of you. You have to be very sober about how you spend your money.”

Tiny Spark invited the Clinton Foundation to respond to Vogel’s article. A spokesperson provided a letter, which noted that President Bill Clinton has spoken at hundreds of charities’ events without compensation. The spokesperson added that among nonprofits, colleges and universities often pay the highest fees for speakers. (Indeed, universities comprise more than half of the nonprofits that paid the Clintons.) The spokesperson criticized Vogel’s comparison between Condoleezza Rice donating her fee back to the Boys & Girls Club while Hillary Clinton donated hers to the Clinton Foundation. He noted that Rice does not operate a foundation herself, and that the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative are among the top two charities Rice supports.

Additional Resources

Transcript of Vogel and White’s interview with Tiny Spark

Politico: Clintons charge big fees to small groups

New York Times: An Award for Bill Clinton Came With $500,000 for His Foundation

Washington Post op-ed: Hillary Clinton’s unseemly speechifying

The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Is Charity Status Becoming Irrelevant?

National Center for Charitable Statistics: Quick Facts About Nonprofits

Histfill: The Clinton Foundation In Historical Perspective