Inside Clinton's annual meeting
Each year at the Clinton Global Initiative, 1,000 friends get together to save the world.
By Bethany McLean, Fortune editor-at-large

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- By far the glossiest, most glamorous part of the Clinton Foundation is an offshoot called the Clinton Global Initiative, a celebrity and CEO-studded conference held in New York City each September. This year's event, Sept. 20 to 22, will be the second CGI, and it's expected to draw some 1,000 eminences, ranging from executives (Rupert Murdoch, Josef Ackermann) to activists (Carl Pope of the Sierra Club) to governmental types (Jacques Chirac, Laura Bush, and most likely Hank Paulson, whose wife, Wendy, went to college with Hillary Clinton).

Citigroup has pledged $5.5 million and is backing a discussion of microfinance. The Gates Foundation is backing a discussion of health care, and hedge fund legend Julian Robertson's foundation is backing the climate-change program. Warren Buffett's son Peter went last year; this year he's returning with his father.

CGI is not supposed to be a copycat of the influential World Economic Forum in Davos. The difference: All CGI participants must sign a commitment, small or large, outlining specific actions they'll take in the upcoming year. "It's like Davos with a conscience," says Pope. Clinton compares it to eBay (Charts) - it brings together people with money and projects that need their money. If - and it's still a big if - CGI works as advertised, it could spark something extraordinary.

Participants can't choose just any old cause, and there's a steep price for broken promises. They have to confine themselves to projects that further CGI's goals, which, according to its beautifully produced 2005 annual report, are to "limit the reach of poverty, promote effective governance, reconcile religious conflicts, and protect the environment." ("Is there anything else?" jokes Gayle Smith, a former Clinton official.)

Unlike foundation projects, which are managed by Clinton's employees, CGI projects will be managed by whoever is doing them. Clinton staff, though, will ensure that commitments are honored. Clinton counselor Doug Band insists that those who don't follow through won't be invited back. As of late August, 17 of last year's attendees were in danger of being kicked off the 2006 guest list.

At first glance, the inaugural pledges seem impressive. Goldman Sachs (Charts) promised more than $12 million to preserve the Tierra del Fuego ecosystem. Governor Manuel Andrade of the Mexican state of Tabasco, in partnership with other agencies, promised to distribute $9 million in small-business loans to 15,000 poor women in the region. McKinsey offered to collaborate on a study of best practices for disaster relief.

The city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, agreed to build a mass transit system. Cisco Systems (Charts) agreed to match the first $1 million of contributions to the Acumen Fund, an antipoverty initiative. The grand total for 2005, according to CGI: nearly 300 pledges worth more than $2.5 billion.

At second glance, though, it's a little less impressive. Some of the commitments seem so vague as to be meaningless. The World Religious Climate Change Initiative "seeks to invite all peoples of our world to participate in a common effort to preserve and promote life on this planet Earth." (Does anyone want to opt out?)

Goldman Sachs's deal in Tierra del Fuego existed before CGI did. The same is true of a $75 million microfinance fund arranged by Deutsche Bank (Charts). Clinton calls it a "great example of the concrete action inspired by the Clinton Global Initiative." But that's impossible, because the fund was well along before CGI.

If attendees are just pulling existing commitments out of the closet, what does CGI accomplish other than self-congratulation? Clinton people are touchy about the issue and say many endeavors did spring from CGI. This year, "original" is one of the criteria for a commitment.

It's still too early to tell what CGI might accomplish. Take Deutsche Bank. In September the firm will announce the Eye Fund, which seeks to address blindness in the developing world. "We're hoping the conference will give us the opportunity to showcase this and get prospective partners to invest," says Gary Hattem, a managing director at Deutsche Bank.

If CGI can bring money to good ideas and bring good ideas to money, then Clinton's new project will be a success.

While some have complained about the substance behind the commitments, none complain about the substance of the conference itself. "I thought it would be extraordinary, but it was even better than I expected," says Smith.

At CGI last year, for instance, under the theme of Religion, Conflict, and Reconciliation, there was a discussion about how radical religious groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon had become embedded in their societies by providing critical services. It seems prophetic now. Expect a new batch of prophecies later this month.

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