Ted Turner: Philantropy 101

How does a man decide to give away a billion dollars? At a recent Washington benefit gala for Refugees International, the privately funded relief organization, CNN founder and owner Ted Turner sat on a stage and revealed how he came to the aid of the United Nations.

His short, revealing monologue — surely a classic in the annals of philanthropic decision making — is reproduced here, more or less verbatim:

“I thought, what could I say [about the United Nations] that would really have an impact? Why don’t I give the United Nations a million dollars? I always thought a million was a lot of money; I come from a middle-class family. Then I said, No, a million dollars wouldn’t do much. The U.S. debt to the U.N. was about a billion dollars, and the U.N. was having trouble paying its bills, so why not just give the U.N. a billion dollars and pay up the debts of the United States?

“Then, I called my lawyers and said, ‘I’m going to give a billion dollars to the United Nations on Friday.’ And my lawyers said, ‘You can’t do that, you haven’t figured out the tax implications or the best way to do it.’ And I said, ‘You better work fast, because you’ve got about 24 hours.’

“They called me up later that afternoon and said, ‘You can’t give a billion dollars to the United Nations.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’

‘Because the United Nations can only accept money from nation-states and the last time we checked you don’t fit the definition of a nation-state.’

“So, I went to sleep that night thinking, Thank God. God didn’t want me to give away that billion dollars. I was only worth three billion at the time, and you know, if you give away a third every time you do something, you’ll be out of money pretty soon. . . . I thought, If I can’t give the money directly to the U.N., we could create a foundation that could work parallel with the U.N. and we could take the money, put it into the foundation, and distribute it to U.N. causes.

“I called my lawyers back the following morning and ran that idea by them. . . . In the afternoon they said that will work. And then I went to see Kofi Annan. . . . I got there right before 5 o’clock, went into his office and told him, and he nearly fainted. . . . I never regretted it a minute and it’s done a lot of good. And now the U.N. can accept donations, too. They changed the rules.”