I admit it, I drank the Kool-Aid when I attended the Clinton Gobal Initiative summit in New York City that wrapped Wednesday.

Despite CGI's discordant treatment of journalists--press were not allowed to wander freely in the events, but had to be escorted at all times and were restricted to pens once inside talks--it was hard not to fall under the spell of the sheer wattage of the celebrity power CGI brings to bear on important world topics such as hunger, sustainability, education, and the treatment of women worldwide.

I mean, where else can you go and see the Reverend Jesse Jackson wandering around with no one to talk to because everyone else is flocking to Barack Obama, Matt Damon and Jack Ma?

It got me wondering though--how useful is CGI, and what makes it effective? It turns out private business plays an enoromous role, not just for fund-raising purposes, but to put all those lofty goals into play.

 
 
 
 
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"Government can't settle all the problems taking place in the world today by themselves," says Jim Moore, a professor of practice at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, who spoke with me about CGI. "Business and government have to be able to work in tandem."  

CGI claims to have raised $103 billion in "commitments" that affect 430 million people in 180 countries. As a fundraising organization that's been in existence for 10 years, $10 billion a year isn't too shabby, says Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies Indiana University's School of Environmental and Public Affairs. By comparison, United Way probably raises about $5 billion annually.

But there's a big difference between making a monetary committment and actually ponying up, Lenkowsky says. (Seven years ago, for example, entrepreneur Richard Branson pledged $3 billion over the next decade to fight global warming through CGI. So far he has reportedly made good on $300 million of that.)

The other challenge is to make sure that the money that does come in gets put to work for its stated goal, Moore says.

While CGI has tracking mechanisms that account for commitments for its various causes, from initial funding pledges to work on the ground, it is often businesses that put goals into practice. 

At a live airing of CNBC anchor's Becky Quick's show at the summit on Tuesday, Quick interviewed John Bilbrey, president and chief executive of the Hershey Company, and Lisa Jackson, vice president of environmental issues at Apple, about the importance of corporate missions and philanthropic goals.

It was clear that companies have a role in taking ideas that are important to consumers and, ultimately, governments and putting them into practice. Or, at least, some try to.

Apple claims to be operating its four data centers and 95 percent of its headquarters on 100 percent renewable energy. It is also working to make sure its entire supply chain is operating sustainably, Jackson says, although that's proving to be more of a challenge. 

Hershey, it turns out, according to Bilbrey has committed to make sure its chocolate is 100 percent "certifiable" by 2020, meaning its chocolate will be produced by farms that have good agricultural practices, including not using child labor and using safe pesiticides. To enable this, Hershey makes site visits, and calibrates its own expectations and requirements with farmers. Rather than costing Hershey more, pricing has smoothed out because its competitors are making similar efforts, Bilbrey said.

"We can make a difference on really important questions that people care about," Bilbrey said. "Capitalism works."

Published on: Sep 25, 2014