Obama Foundation contributions dropped in 2019; top staff pay increased, fundraising costs jumped

The foundation is also increasingly dependent on gifts from corporations and other foundations rather than from individuals, newly released records show.

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Former President Barack Obama speaks with Obama Foundation fellows and actress, model, and activist Yara Shahidi during the Obama Foundation Summit at the Illinois Institute of Technology on Oct. 29, 2019.

Former President Barack Obama speaks with Obama Foundation fellows and actress, model, and activist Yara Shahidi (center left) during the Obama Foundation Summit last year at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Obama Foundation contributions dropped in 2019 for the second year in a row, while pay for top staffers increased and fundraising costs almost doubled, according to financial documents released Friday.

The foundation also increasingly depends on gifts from corporations and other foundations rather than from individuals, records show.

The foundation on Friday posted its annual report and Internal Revenue Service Form 990, which provides more details. The IRS 990 is filed annually by tax-exempt organizations and must include information about their highest-paid employees and contractors.

Headquartered in Hyde Park, the foundation raises money to pay for programs in the U.S. and around the globe and to build the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.

There is no groundbreaking date for the complex as federal reviews are ongoing, likely through the end of the year, and an appeal of a federal case trying to block construction is pending.

Among the finance highlights:

• The annual report shows corporations and foundations accounted for 34.36% of 2019 fundraising, or $48.6 million, compared to 15.5%, or $25.7 million, in 2018.

• Total receipts dipped in 2019 compared to 2018, and one reason is the COVD-19 pandemic. The Sun-Times was told a $50 million pledge made in 2019 was contingent on an online marketplace company, not identified, going public. The initial public offering of the company was “delayed due to COVID-19” and not included in 2019 fundraising totals.

Totals since the foundation was created in 2014:

2019: $141,308,493

2018: $164,674,309

2017: $232,592,542

2016: $13,182,092

2015: $1,916,266

2014: $5,434,877

• Obama faces a formidable fundraising challenge. The Obama Center alone is estimated to cost at least $500 million to build. According to the Obama Center city ordinance, before construction can begin, the foundation has to certify to the city it has the funds or pledged gifts that in “the aggregate equal or exceed the Projected Total Construction Costs of the Presidential Center.”

The 990 shows total fundraising expenses for 2019 were $10.3 million compared to 2018 costs of $5.6 million. The foundation in 2019 paid seven fundraising firms — in New York, California, Massachusetts and Washington — to develop fundraising strategies and programs to cultivate and solicit donors.

That report also shows the Obama Foundation is looking for contributions from beyond the U.S. — in Europe, South American, East Asia and other Pacific regions.

• The foundation staff is growing, to 203 in 2019 from 170 in 2018, according to the 990, which also reveals a leap in volunteers, to 985 in 2019 from 215 in 2018.

• Obama Center architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams were compensated $8.6 million; other top contractors in 2019 were the Lakeside Alliance in Gary, Ind., paid $2.7 million for Obama Center construction management, and The Construction Consultant, a design consultant working on the Obama Center, paid $2.5 million. The Sidley Austin law firm received $1.7 million.

• The Obama Foundation gives grants to other foundations. Its biggest, $150,000 went to the Chicago Community Loan Fund. Other Chicago gifts were $100,000 to the Youth Guidance social services organization; $50,000 to Metropolitan Family Services; and $10,000 to the Children First Fund, to benefit students in the Chicago Public Schools.

• The Obama Center will not house the Obama Presidential Library, which continues to organize the records of the Obama presidency in temporary quarters in northwest suburban Hoffman Estates. The Obama Foundation paid $1.9 million to an arm of the National Archives and Records Administration — which runs official presidential libraries — to digitalize the Obama records.

• Last August, the Obama Foundation hired its first president, Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo a former deputy national security adviser in the Obama White House.

Adeyemo is the highest-ranking African American in the foundation; the Sun-Times was told his annual salary is $600,000. He is the third-highest paid.

The base salary plus benefits packages for top foundation executives increased for the third year in a row. Here are the totals for top staffers working all of 2019, according to the 990:

• David Simas, chief executive officer: $657,965 in 2019, compared to $641,846 in 2018 and $614,636 in 2017.

•Robbin Cohen, executive director: $589,971 in 2019, compared to$589,971 in 2018 and $562,055 in 2017, when Cohen’s total pay package was $862,055, including a one-time $300,000 bonus; she was not paid by the foundation in 2014, its first year.

.•Glenn Brown, chief digital officer: $454,287 in 2019 compared to $445,807 in 2018 and $378,519 in 2017.

• Anne Filipic, chief program officer: $428,399 in 2019, up from $413,711 in 2018, her first full year.

• Bernadette Meehan, chief international officer: $331,593, in 2019, compared to $293,637 in 2018 and $180,048 in 2017.

• Michael Strautmanis, chief engagement officer: $313,493 in 2019, compared to $305,785 in 2018 and $292,044 in 2017.

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