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Putting His Money...
...where his mouth is, Turner pledges $1 billion to the U.N. and urges the rich to give more to charity
By Adam Cohen/TIME
NEW YORK (TIME, Sep. 29) -- Ted Turner was on a plane headed for New York City to address a U.N. Association dinner last week when he decided to give away $1 billion. Looking over statements prepared by his financial advisers, he noticed that his net worth had shot up from $2.2 billion to $3.2 billion between the beginning of the year and Aug. 31, largely on the strength of a 50% rise in Time Warner stock. "Hey, not bad," Turner recalls thinking at the time. "Why not go for the billion? Let's go for the big one." After bouncing the idea off his wife, Jane Fonda, over dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria ("She burst into tears" of joy, he says), Turner stunned an audience that included U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan by announcing from the podium that over 10 years he will give $1 billion to fund U.N. programs.
While others have given more over the course of their lives, Turner's is the largest donation ever made to a single organization. Turner, founder of CNN and vice chairman of Time Warner, says he did not realize its rank at the time he chose the billion-dollar figure. He prefers to focus on how important it is for wealthy people to share their bounty when "the world is just awash in money" because of rising stock markets. And Turner says he hopes his gift will encourage others to support the U.N. and the programs it operates worldwide, which range from removing land mines to providing inoculations for children.
Turner has long cultivated a reputation for brashness in support of causes he believes in, many of them involving the environment and the stresses of overpopulation. In the past year, his hectoring of the very rich has increased in volume and sharpness, possibly as a prelude to a major philanthropic flourish of his own. Turner has called it a "pretty pathetic thing" that many wealthy people give little to charity, and he has said Forbes magazine's ranking of wealthy Americans discourages giving, because those on the list don't want to slip down. He has even singled out fellow billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett for criticism, but he denied last week that his gift was intended to send a message to any specific person. Gates has already "dramatically increased the amount he has given," Turner says. "I'm not on anyone's case right now." His role models range from billionaire philanthropist George Soros to octogenarian Oseola McCarty, the Mississippi washerwoman who gave $150,000 to pay for scholarships at a local college. And, says Turner, he draws inspiration from A Christmas Carol ("the greatest book on giving I ever read") and the joy Scrooge finds when he finally adopts a more charitable attitude toward the Cratchit family.
His gift is earmarked for nonadministrative programs, and Turner says he hopes it will boost popular support for the U.N. "It's the organization that has the most reach and the most influence and is doing the most good," he notes. The U.N. has been going through hard times lately, battling bankruptcy and contemplating layoffs, in part because the U.S. is as much as $1.5 billion behind in its dues--more than the organization's entire annual budget. Before deciding on the gift, Turner says, he considered a more unorthodox approach: buying the outstanding U.S. debt from the U.N. and then going to Congress and demanding to be paid, threatening to sue if Congress continued to balk. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who called Turner last week to thank him, was quick to applaud the gift. "I think this reflects not only Ted Turner's brilliant approach to solv[ing] problems," she said, but also "how the American people feel about the value of the United Nations." Turner has promised to help raise more money for the organization through the U.N. Foundation, a new charitable organization he intends to set up as a conduit for his gift.
Rather than giving the $1 billion in a lump sum, Turner is setting aside that amount in Time Warner stock to support 10 gifts of $100 million each over the course of a decade. The actual gifts may or may not be made in stock, and their value will be less than $1 billion if Time Warner stock falls in value. (Last Friday the stock closed at $55.25 a share, near its all-time high.) Many of the details of the donation, including its tax benefits to Turner, have yet to be worked out. "I don't even know what the tax breaks are," says Turner. "I haven't considered them." His casual style of giving has not made things easy for his financial advisers. "They haven't really had time to do much more than say, 'Please don't say too much until we can work this out,'" he adds. But even though they may have wanted him to move more cautiously, Turner says he was intent on making the announcement at last week's dinner. "I couldn't wait, because I had the whole United Nations there and all their supporters. I was kind of winging it a little bit."
--With reporting by Aixa M. Pascual/New York
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