Rick Cohen: Obama's post-presidency charity work takes shape

The President has relaunched his My Brother's Keeper initiative as a non-profit, writes our US columnist

Rick Cohen
Rick Cohen

If Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg are considering a career change after the recent UK election, they can look to US politicians as models in creating a purpose for themselves in charity and philanthropy. Barack Obama, for example, seems to have created his own philanthropic off-ramp out of the White House for the end of his presidency.

Little more than a year ago, the president unveiled the My Brother's Keeper initiative to address the challenges facing young black men.

It would not be "some big new government programme", he said. Admitting he was unlikely to get anything through a hostile Republican Congress, he announced that foundations and corporations would commit $200m toward "boosting the achievement of young men of colour".

The MBK taskforce issued a report of recommendations and a second report on the anniversary of the launch, celebrating local private initiatives and ongoing federal efforts. In the interim, young black men such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a playground in Cleveland, Ohio, were killed by police officers.

Obama has now relaunched his governmental non-programme as a non-profit, the My Brother's Keeper Alliance, with some of the same board members who served on the MBK taskforce plus some heavyweight corporate donors. "This will remain a mission for me and for Michelle, not just for the rest of my presidency, but for the rest of my life," he said at the launch. That might have been a cue. Obama seems to have created his post-presidential philanthropic vehicle of choice. He already had a project under way to create a presidential library in Chicago, but a foundation for this purpose is academic and somewhat passive, compared with foundations engaged in solving the critical problems of the day, such as Tony Blair's charities and President Clinton's multi-armed foundation.

Obama might have much to learn from the serial disclosure problems of the Clinton Foundation, but he can also learn from another ex-president. Jimmy Carter might be a positive role model for Obama - an example of a president who didn't do all that well in office, but has had an impact on bettering people's lives without having to collect half-million-dollar speaking fees to pay the bills, like Clinton, or cutting deals with oligarchs and dictators, as Blair has done.

Rick Cohen, is the national correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly in Boston, Massachusetts

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