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KRISTOF: How Ted Turner showed giving can be cool

  • Billionaire media mogul Ted Turner flashes a smile at a 1997 dinner prior to announcing his plan to donate $1 billion s to a foundation to benefit United Nations causes. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

It was 15 years ago that Ted Turner needed something interesting to say in a speech — and decided, in a rush, to give away $1 billion.

“I was on my way to New York to make the speech,” Turner recalled to me. “I just thought, what am I going to say?”

So, in front of a stunned dinner audience, he announced a $1 billion gift to U.N. causes such as fighting global poverty.

In nominal terms, before adjusting for inflation, that semi-accidental donation was, at the time, believed to be the biggest single gift ever made, and it has helped transform philanthropy.

Tycoons used to compete for their place on the Forbes and Fortune lists of wealthiest people. If they did give back, it was often late in life and involved museums or the arts. They spent far more philanthropic dollars on oil paintings of women than on improving the lives of real women.

Turner's gift helped change that culture, reviving the tradition of great philanthropists like Rockefeller and Carnegie. Turner publicly began needling other billionaires — including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — to be more generous. That was a breach of etiquette, but it worked.

“It's a starting point for me of this modern era of high-profile big public giving,” reflected Matthew Bishop, co-author of “Philanthrocapitalism,” a terrific book about how the business world is reshaping philanthropy. “He called on others to step up, which did have a crystallizing effect on others. It allowed journalists and others who were talking to Bill Gates to say: ‘Why aren't you giving more?' Then they tormented Buffett with the same question.”

Ultimately, Gates and Buffett made huge contributions that are transforming the struggle against global disease and poverty. My hunch is that Gates will be remembered less for his work on personal computers than for his accomplishments against malaria, AIDS and poverty itself.

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