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KRISTOF: How Ted Turner showed giving can be cool

  • Billionaire media mogul Ted Turner flashes a smile at the dinner table prior to announcing his plans to donate a billion dollars to a foundation to benefit United Nations causes Thursday Sept. 18, 1997, in New York. During a dinner speech at an awards ceremony at a Times Square hotel, Turner said he would give $100 million a year for the next 10 years to U.N.-approved programs, including those helping refugees, fighting diseases and cleaning up land mines. (AP Photo/Mitch Jacobson)

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.

Gates and Buffett are both now recruiters for the Giving Pledge, which commits zillionaires to give away at least half their wealth. The giving pledge adds to the expectation that those who have won the global jackpot should give something back.

Turner channeled his money through the United Nations Foundation, where it was leveraged to get other contributions so as to bring $2 billion to finance causes from malaria to polio, from climate change to family planning.


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