Fundraising bonanza fuels Obama Foundation, top staffer earns whopping $862K

SHARE Fundraising bonanza fuels Obama Foundation, top staffer earns whopping $862K

Former President Barack Obama meets with stakeholders and community members at the Obama Foundation’s headquarters in Hyde Park, Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 28, 2018. The meeting was called to provide an update on the Obama Center’s programming and a chance for the former president to thank the pre-selected group of community members. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

WASHINGTON —Two items jump out of the new Obama Foundation IRS filing released Tuesday: the foundation no longer identifies its megadonors and its executive director earned more than $862,000 in salary and bonuses in 2017.

This lack of transparency about contributors comes as City Hall is demanding the Foundation fund an endowment covering the building costs for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park as part of the deal the City Council will vote on in November.


The city is not promising to make the endowment details available to the public.

The IRS form 990, mandated annually for tax-exempt organizations, requires non-profits to list details about its highest paid employees and contractors.

Architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, who are designing the Obama Center, collected $4,963,525 in 2017. They were hired in June 2016 and paid $305,622 that year.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, the architects will deliver an update on the center designs at the Chicago Architecture Center Lecture Hall, 111 E. Wacker Dr.

Obama Presidential Center rendering. | Obama Foundation

Obama Presidential Center rendering. | Obama Foundation

The foundation paid $2.75 million to several communications firms, including the Washington-based SKDKnickerbocker, which provides public relations, digital design and other consulting services.

Top 5 Obama Foundation salaries

The filing lists the group’s highest paid officers and their compensation:

  • $862,055 for Executive Director Robbin Cohen. That includes a $300,000 bonus in 2017. She was not paid by the foundation in 2014, its first year. Her base salary is $662,055.
  • $614,636 for CEO David Simas
  • $378,519 for Chief Digital Officer Glenn Brown
  • $292,044 for Civic Engagement Vice President Michael Strautmanis
  • $256,903 for Chief Development (fundraising) Officer Jordan Kaplan

The payroll has grown from $173,214 in 2014 to $8.8 million in 2017, according to the 990. The foundation has offices in Chicago, Washington and New York.

Expenses totaled $21.3 million in 2017, the most ever, a jump from $4.9 million in 2016.

Evolving mission and programming

The IRS filing notes a mission change from past years, from developing the Obama Center to creating programs that “honor the legacy” of former President Barack Obama and “inspire” and “empower.”

In 2017, the foundation launched fellows programs and a variety of global forums and other international events.

The biggest Chicago event was a two-day “Inaugural Summit” last October with 500 attendees from 60 nations.

Endowment and disclosure questions

The Foundation must prove to the city that funding is in hand — either through cash or pledges — to cover the center’s construction costs, estimated at $350 million.

The Obama Foundation was created on Jan. 31, 2014. In the three previous 990s filed by the Obama Foundation, the names of major donors, their states of residence and the exact totals of the gifts were listed.

In the new filing, the foundation listed the mammoth donations but declined to say who made them.

The super-sized anonymous donations were listed as:

  • Four donations of $25 million each
  • Two donations of $24 million each
  • Two donations of $10 million each
  • One donation of Amazon stock worth $8.5 million
  • Two donations of $8 million each
  • Two donations of $5 million each

The foundation makes the names of donors public on its website but the site does not state the amount of their gifts or where they are from. The system is designed to obfuscate; only the broad range of the contribution is disclosed, and the top category is $1 million and up.

The matter of the endowment is just now coming into play, with the introduction last week of two ordinances the City Council must pass in order for the Obama Center development to advance.

Last week, the Sun-Times asked Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman and Strautmanis if the endowment guarantees will be publicly disclosed. Neither said they would be.

The question I’m asking: what safeguards will the public have when it comes to certifying the endowment? Will it all be secret? That’s where we are headed.

A foundation spokesman, who did not want his name used, said, “The Foundation is committed to the highest level of financial accountability and transparency. In 2016 and years prior when President Obama was still in office, the Foundation decided to report in the 990 all donors who had contributed.

“At that time, our goal was to make crystal clear that Foundation donors would have no influence in the White House. Now that President and Mrs. Obama are private citizens, in accordance with established philanthropic practices, the Foundation has updated its policy to no longer include contributors on the 990 but will continue to update contributors on”

Record fundraising

In 2017, the foundation had its best fundraising year, bringing in $232.6 million. That was revealed in its first-ever annual report, published in August. That’s because with Obama out of office, a self-imposed $1 million donation cap was lifted.

Fundraising expenses were $4.2 million, up from $1.1 million in 2016.


• Oprah Winfrey gives at least $1 million to Obama Foundation

• New hearing date for Obama Center lawsuit could help project foes

• EDITORIAL: Chopping of Jackson Park trees related to Obama Center bad form

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