By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former U.S. President Bill Clinton on Wednesday called running his family's charitable foundation one of the great honors of his life in a passionate defense against criticism of its work as his wife, Hillary Clinton, campaigns to become president.
Speaking onstage in a New York City hotel ballroom for about an hour, he told supporters of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation that it had brought about "a profound advance in the conduct and impact of modern philanthropy."
"Don't give up what brought you here," he said, closing out the 12th and final annual conference organized by the foundation, called the Clinton Global Initiative. "You have done something good and noble and worthy."
The foundation, which Clinton founded as he prepared to leave the White House in 2001, has come under intense scrutiny brought about by a long presidential campaign.
Journalists have scoured newly released email records from Hillary Clinton's tenure running the State Department from 2009 to 2013, which show foundation officials seeking meetings with Clinton or other diplomats on behalf of donors.
Donald Trump, Clinton's Republican opponent for the presidency, has called for a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of breaching government ethics rules.
The Clintons have said that even if some of their wealthiest donors, which include corporations and foreign governments with interests before the U.S. government, may have hoped for special favors in return, none were granted.
To avert suggestions of conflicts of interest, the foundation has said it will drastically limit its operations if Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, wins the election to succeed Barack Obama on Nov. 8.
It would stop accepting money from foreign and corporate donors, foundation officials say, and much of its work would be spun off into independent entities not controlled by the Clintons.
Bill Clinton, 70, has expressed frustration that political journalists covering his wife's campaign have written more about the foundation's donors, which include the government of Saudi Arabia and foreign billionaires, than the charitable programs it runs.
He spoke at length about how he had been moved by meeting children with HIV in Cambodia, orphans left behind by the 2004 tsunami that struck Indonesia and victims of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.
He made only oblique references to the 2016 election campaign.
"Everywhere today there is a temptation to say that everything I just told you is wrong, 'Life is a zero-sum game and I'm losing; no, you're wrong, our differences matter more than our common humanity,'" he said. "These are not the right choices."
(Refiles to make clear in paragraph 5 that foundation officials were seeking the meetings on behalf of donors.)
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Alan Crosby)