Obama Foundation accepts first foreign contributions

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Obama Presidential Center rendering. | Obama Foundation

WASHINGTON —  In the first quarter of this year, the Barack Obama Presidential Foundation accepted its first foreign contributions from individuals, according to an analysis of donors disclosed on Monday.

A Malaysian mogul, Tony Fernandes, gave or pledged $1 million to the Chicago-based foundation. His company launched AirAsia. In London, he is known as one of the major investors behind the Queens Park Rangers, a soccer team.

And a member of the British House of Lords, Rumi Verjee, who is the proprietor and chairman of the London-based Thomas Goode and Co — sellers of luxury china, silverware and related items — in the first quarter of the year committed to giving between $100,001 to $250,000 from his Rumi Foundation.

High end donors can expect special attention from the Obama Foundation either in the U.S. or internationally, as the foundation develops programming around the globe, the most recent earlier this month in Berlin.

In April, 2018, Verjee welcomed Obama Foundation CEO David Simas to a luncheon at Thomas Goode, according to the Rumi Foundation website.

“David Simas spoke powerfully about the responsibilities that we all have as citizens. Too often, we focus on our rights, but our civic duties are crucially important. If we get this right, we can build strong, supportive communities. It is a privilege for The Rumi Foundation to help shape and build this legacy, alongside President Obama and Michelle Obama,” the Rumi Foundation said.

While donations from foreign individuals are reported for the first time, the policy of the Obama Foundation is to not take money from foreign governments.

The Obama Foundation is raising hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for the proposed construction and operation of the Obama Presidential Center in historic Jackson Park and for an expanding number of domestic and international programs.

Some donors earmark what they want their contributions to pay for.

AT&T, another new giver, targeted its $1 million gift for three programs helping Chicago youths: the Obama Foundation Community Leadership Corps, Obama Youth Jobs Corps and My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.

The money is being donated as part of AT&T’s ongoing “Believe Chicago” programs aimed at helping 19 Chicago neighborhoods “most impacted by gun violence and high unemployment. “

Eileen Mitchell, AT&T Illinois president, said in a statement, “We believe in Chicago. That’s why we’re supporting the Obama Foundation’s work to help inspire and empower youth in Chicago.”

AT&T in all is giving $4 million to organizations in its “Believe Chicago” communities, including the $1 million to the Obama Foundation.

The Obama Foundation unfortunately only discloses the general range of donations each quarter and posts the names of givers on its website — just the names, nothing else, except an asterisk to mark someone new.

That works when Oprah Winfrey donates a million — but many donors have more common names that are not as well known.

As I note each quarter, Obama Foundation chair Marty Nesbitt tolerates and will not revise this non-consumer friendly system which gets more cumbersome each quarter. The Obama Foundation declines to name any donors on the annual 990 document filed with the IRS.

The Obama Foundation fundraisers recruited 24 new donors over $10,000 in January, February and March of 2019.

Giving in the $250,001 to $500,000 range: the Don & Anne Edwards Charitable Fund. Don Edwards is the CEO of the Chicago private equity investment firm, Flexpoint Ford. More central to the Obama Foundation, he is a member of the Chicago Park District Board.

The park district is being sued in federal court by a parks preservation group seeking to block construction of the Obama Center in Jackson Park.

Others who have given or pledged at least $1 million this past quarter are:

  • The Irving Harris Foundation-Joan Harris. Obama awarded arts patron and civic activist Joan Harris the 2013 National Medal of Arts.
  • Colleen & Bradley Bell Charitable Foundation. The couple, with Chicago roots, are from the soap opera family; they also were Obama donors and fundraisers. Obama named Colleen as the ambassador to Hungary and to the Kennedy Center Board.
  • Andrew Houston, the CEO of Dropbox.
  • The Schlosstein Hartley Foundation. The couple were major fundraisers for Obama. Obama tapped Jane Hartley to be the U.S. ambassador to France and Monaco.
  • The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Michigan based organization with roots in the famed cereal family.
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