Can the Clinton Global Initiative Showcase for the Rest of Us the Philanthropic Power of Special Events?

14 Feb


The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) held its 2013 Annual Meeting at the end of September 2013. By all accounts, it was a spectacular event, drawing more than 1000 people from across the globe. According to the CGI’s Blog, over the three days of the 2013 Annual Meeting, an array of Heads of State, CEOs, non-profit leaders and other global luminaries made over 160 new commitments, valued at more than $10 billion and expected to impact nearly 22 million lives.”

In case you’re not familiar with it, former President Bill Clinton established the Clinton Global Initiative in 2005 with a mission to ‘turn ideas into action’. The Initiative’s hallmark is its Annual Meeting, which is held in New York City each year, and convenes leaders from across the globe to work together to create innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing issues.

The Annual Meeting provides a safe, neutral and stimulating forum for people from diverse backgrounds and professions, and vastly different, in some cases conflicting interests and ideologies, to come together. Many of those who attend the CGI Annual Meeting would not have the occasion or, in some cases, the inclination to come together otherwise to discuss and work together to conceive shared goals and strategies and a common plan for action to address a wide range of issues.

Through the CGI Annual Meeting, leaders learn from both panel experts and from each other; engage in healthy, hearty intellectual debate; forge new relationships; and create new and also determine how to build on existing promising strategies to address problems plaguing our world. From each Annual Meeting comes a series of both macro- and micro-level initiatives that are ready for implementation.

Without question, the CGI Annual Meeting as it stands now deserves our attention and praise. It is, at its core, a philanthropic endeavor, one that seems to be making a difference.

But, what if the Clinton Global Initiative took its Annual Meeting one simple step further by harnessing and in turn showcasing the philanthropic power of special events at the event itself?

What if part and parcel of the CGI Annual Meeting was a philanthropic gift that was collectively generated by, decided upon and awarded at the time of the event by the event’s attendees, speakers and organizers to a high performing nonprofit organization that is addressing a major social or environmental need, either in the event’s host community, or in another locale decided upon by the event’s attendees?

The significant pool of philanthropic funds could be generated through a modest add-on to the event’s registration fee (as little as $50-$100), and an entirely voluntary ‘grant committee’, composed of event attendees and speakers, would be established to decide the social or environmental need and the high performing nonprofit to receive the grant, and then the award would be presented as part of the exciting conclusion of the event.

Isn’t that a win-win-win?

You, the event attendee or speaker, are not only all the richer for the knowledge you have gained and the insights you contributed at the event. You also get to walk away with your head held high, knowing that your relatively modest donation, pooled with the modest donations of the event’s hundreds of other attendees and speakers, leveraged a sizable pot of philanthropic funds that wouldn’t have been generated otherwise. You (along with your fellow attendees and speakers) then get to personally award the funds to a carefully vetted, high performing nonprofit organization that is addressing a high priority need.

Event hosts and organizers will benefit in myriad ways, depending on the type of event (educational or industry conferences, award ceremonies, corporate retreats, membership association meetings, among others). They may garner positive media attention that the event would not attract otherwise; membership organizations may cultivate greater loyalty among members and expand their membership base; individual companies, and in some cases industries as a whole can further build a reputation for having a strong social conscience and ‘giving back’; etc.

The nonprofit organization that receives the grant will not only benefit from the generous pool of funds you and your fellow event participants leveraged through relatively modest donations from individual participants. It can also use your grant to leverage additional funding from other sources, thus making the grant dollars you leveraged exponentially greater.

A key question, however, is whether those of us paying the already steep registration fees for events (whether we are an individual, a company, a grant making foundation, or another entity) would resent the additional fee, regardless of its charitable purpose. Would we also take an exception to the registration fee add-on when many of us already have specific charities that we support on our own each year and don’t want to feel ‘pushed’ to support another?

What do you think?

As a consultant to nonprofits, philanthropies and companies for the past 25 years, I’ve certainly attended my fair share of professional conferences, association meetings, annual retreats, award ceremonies and the like. I’ve paid for many on my own and also had many underwritten by clients. Whether I’m writing the check myself or giving the event billing information to my client, either way I often grimace at the cost of the event.

And, yet, I’m 100% in favor of seizing what I consider an incredible opportunity for events of all different types, which take place by the thousands each year, to help us unearth a significant level of additional philanthropic capital and truly maximize the power of collective philanthropic action. It makes sense from both a business and a social conscience perspective.

With just a modest donation, I can become part and parcel of generating and awarding a significant pool of philanthropic dollars, most likely more money at just one event than I could afford to give in my entire lifetime. The multiplier effect of each of our modest donations is palpable. If just 25% of the events held each year generated a pool of funds and awarded a philanthropic gift, it would increase the level of philanthropic dollars committed to address social and environmental needs literally by the millions.

Especially for events that are already organized around a social mission, such as the CGI Annual Meeting, the National Council on Foundations Annual Conference, etc., it seems only logical that they would use the event itself as an opportunity to showcase their social values and commitment. But, it is also logical, not to mention the right thing to do for all kinds of conferences, conventions, corporate retreats, award ceremonies such as the Motion Picture Arts’ Academy Awards, among countless others, to do the same.

Now back to the Clinton Global Initiative.

Given its high-profile, excellent reputation, the diversity of human talent and intellectual capital it draws, and its philanthropic mission, the CGI Annual Meeting is especially well positioned to showcase for the rest of us the role that events can have on addressing social and environmental needs.

My hope is that the Clinton Global Initiative will embrace this role at its 2014 Annual Meeting and, in so doing serve as a game-changer when it comes to unleashing and capitalizing on the power of collective philanthropic action through events. Let’s learn from CGI’s Annual Meeting how it could work, the positive imprint it could leave and the fabulous ripple effect it will (hopefully) have with special events the whole world over.


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