After a six-year hiatus, the Clinton Global Initiative returned to New York City this week, bringing together leaders from the worlds of nonprofit, government and business, with a few celebrities sprinkled in for good measure. It has been an eventful few years since they last gathered in 2016.
“The challenges we face are steep, but they pretty much have been steep for a long time now,” former President Bill Clinton said in his opening remarks at the Hilton in Midtown Manhattan on Monday. “And CGI is always and has always been about what we can do and not what we can’t do.”
The Clinton Global Initiative began in 2005 and quickly became something akin to a Davos-on-the-Hudson event, but one with a greater focus on philanthropy, nonprofits and corporate do-gooding. The way it differed from most conferences is that it required participants to make commitments, sometimes in dollars, other times in targets — such as for creating jobs or delivering clean water.
Up to the hiatus in 2016, attendees announced more than 3,700 commitments, which by the organization’s own tally had helped more than 435 million people in over 180 countries.
In many ways the early days were the high-water mark of the philanthrocapitalism era, when trust in the wealthy and celebrities to save the world ran high. In turn, many significant organizations modeled themselves after the Clintons’ endeavor.
Then in 2016, in the heat of the general election campaign fight between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump, with reporters asking a lot of questions about the foundation and its donors, Mr. Clinton announced that the 2016 meeting would be the final version of the initiative.
Now, as world leaders gathered in New York for the first fully in-person United Nations General Assembly in three years, the goal is to recapture that old Clinton magic, and to see if there is still room in a field of thought-leading, pledge-making symposia crowding the city this week.
Advisers to Mr. Clinton said that in the years since, he had longed to restart the event. “He would tell me regularly when we were just talking before a board meeting, ‘I was just out last night and someone was saying when are you going to start CGI again?’” said Robert Harrison, former chief executive of the Clinton Global Initiative, from 2007 to 2016, and a board member of the Clinton Foundation.
“A year ago, 10 months ago, we looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s try,’” Mr. Harrison recalled.
The Clintons’ return to the world stage was heralded in March with a letter from Mr. Clinton that doubled as a call to arms. With the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the challenges to democracy at home and abroad, the world needed CGI back, according to Mr. Clinton.
Judging from the names at the event, many old friends and allies answered the call, including the philanthropists Laurene Powell Jobs and Melinda French Gates, Secretary Xavier Becerra of the Department of Health and Human Services, state governors, corporate chief executives, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the director-general of the World Health Organization.
This year the initiative tallied 144 commitments, which will result in more than 1.6 million jobs and the reduction of 3.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.
Commitments ranged from a program to build soccer fields in underserved communities to one making bricks out of volcanic ash. Nine members committed to providing humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Mr. Clinton interviewed President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine via videoconference on Tuesday, with Mr. Zelensky in his trademark form-fitting T-shirt.
Milling in the halls at the event, Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor and longtime denizen of Clinton world, brushed past, smartphone pressed to his face. Petra Nemcova, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model who survived the deadly 2004 tsunami in Thailand and now works in philanthropy, chatted with a Ukrainian official by the coffee urns, where the milk was all plant-based — soy, oat, almond — in a nod to Mr. Clinton’s veganism as well as the climate impact of cows. The meals were all plant-based, too.
The mood between sessions was like that at a college reunion, with people embracing after years apart and speaking warmly and with nostalgia — convivial but not, perhaps, the most forward looking.
“Why did they leave in the first place?” said Paloma Raggo, a philanthropy expert and professor at the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University in Ottawa. “It wasn’t the right political climate for them to be at the forefront of things.”
The Clintons shut down the initiative because of scrutiny during the campaign. And they kept it on ice for six years for a variety of reasons. First there was the recovery from Mrs. Clinton’s defeat in the presidential election. Then the #MeToo movement brought a harsh spotlight on past Clinton ties to Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein. Later, people close to Bill and Hillary say, Covid protocols kept them away from large crowds.
Still, to critical observers, the timing does not seem clear. “Is it because now there are issues that make it necessary, them coming here, or is it because at this point the political consequences or bad juju has dissolved a bit and they reappeared?” Ms. Raggo asked.
Some former advisers say the Clinton Global Initiative’s moment has passed and the event should not be revived. Memberships, which cost $15,000 and $20,000 in past years, were just $5,000 for this year’s event, according to Mr. Harrison, the former chief executive. In addition to Mr. Clinton’s desire to return to the spotlight, some see the former first daughter as a motivating force.
Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Clinton this month debuted a documentary series on AppleTV+ called “Gutsy,” in which mother and daughter talk to famous women and activists. Mrs. Clinton, who has also written or co-written four books, two with Chelsea, since the 2016 election, took the stage Monday afternoon to a standing ovation.
“I don’t know about you, but when people ask me how I am these days, I often say: ‘Well, personally I’m great. I’m just worried about everything,’” Mrs. Clinton told the crowd.
Shortly thereafter, on the same stage, Ms. French Gates announced a $50 million donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund scholarships at a health sciences university in Rwanda in the name of Dr. Paul Farmer, who died unexpectedly in February.
“Someone else has stepped up who also appreciates, respects and understands the value of this work,” Mrs. Clinton then said. “One of Paul’s friend’s here in our CGI community has just told us about making a gift of $10 million more dollars.”
The foundation started in 1997 as the charitable vehicle to pay for the design and construction of Mr. Clinton’s presidential library. It had its share of controversy pretty quickly, with the Marc Rich pardon and donations an issue as he left the White House. In 2002, the Clintons started the Clinton H.I.V./AIDS Initiative, with the goal of saving the lives of millions of people around the world living with the disease. Today it continues as the Clinton Health Access Initiative, though it spun off from the foundation in 2010.
When the Clinton Global Initiative debuted in 2005, George W. Bush was president. Hillary Clinton was a New York senator and a likely presidential contender herself. Bill Clinton was a recent two-term president. Chelsea seemed poised to follow in her parents’ footsteps.
The first version of the Clinton Global Initiative, in 2005, was timed to the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. The currency of the initiative was the “commitment.” Attendees were encouraged to make commitments that were then tallied at $2.5 billion in pledges from 300 people, to a variety of causes including global poverty, conflict resolution and climate change.
The September traffic jam of motorcades zipping between events during the United Nations General Assembly were the moment to extract these pledges.
“I think CGI was the rocket fuel on all of this,” said John Prendergast, co-founder of the Sentry, who has appeared on several panels with heads of state there over the years. “He has this real nose for pulling these various communities together,” he said of Mr. Clinton.
Now there are numerous other events competing for attention and attendance, including the Concordia Summit and the Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers event.
Donna Shalala, the former health and human services secretary and former president of the Clinton Foundation, said in an interview that they had ended the Clinton Global Initiative to avoid any potential conflict of interest with Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.
“It was painful,” she said. “Let me assure you the president loves CGI and the rest of us did. And the foundation was defined by CGI, it’s what everyone knew us for.”
When the election ended and Mrs. Clinton lost, it was not a simple matter of cranking up the annual meeting again.
“This is not just hitting pause on a song; it’s like shutting down a nuclear reactor, you don’t just keep flipping the switch on and off,” said Philippe Reines, a longtime adviser to Mrs. Clinton. “Once you turn it off, there’s an energy and a ramp-up that’s involved and time consuming.”
Even after a dormant period for the initiative, the foundation’s signature event, tax filings show that the foundation had net assets of over $300 million as of the 2020 tax year, the most recent available.
For nonprofits, CGI can be a powerful place to raise funds and make connections.
Gary White, the chief executive and a co-founder of Water.org, said he had met some of his most important donors at CGI, including the PepsiCo Foundation, the Mastercard Foundation and the Ikea Foundation.
“Where the rubber meets the road is at CGI, where they are there to make commitments not just as a side show,” Mr. White said.
He also met the actor Matt Damon at CGI, in 2008, when his organization was called Water Partners. Mr. Damon had his own group, known as H2O Africa. The next year they announced that they had merged their groups. This year, they made a commitment to deliver clean water and sanitation to 100 million people in need, a goal the group says it is nearly halfway to meeting.
Mr. Clinton’s opening remarks at the conference came out a little quiet, a hint raspier than usual, a tiny bit slow.
He made a reference to “someone who had no dog in the hunt,” and then quipped, “You must forgive me if I sometimes slip off into my colloquial past.” The audience laughed, relief palpable, as the old charm emerged.
Toward the end of his first panel, Mr. Clinton told the participants, “I wish I could keep you here the rest of the day.”
After that panel, Mr. Clinton leaned down from the stage to grasp hands, smile, pose for photographs and talk to the crowd. He beamed, campaign-trail muscle memory seeming to kick in. As the Secret Service tried to move him along, one had the distinct impression that the former president never wanted to leave the stage.