Article: 'Winging It' for World Peace


Additional donors and a knack for teamwork have helped Ted Turner's U.N. charity thrive

By Brennen Jensen

Last fall, the United Nations Foundation, an organization here that supports United Nations humanitarian efforts worldwide, announced a milestone: It had provided $1-billion to support the international body's programs.

A sizable figure, but perhaps not so surprising. The charity was founded after Robert Edward (Ted) Turner, the news-media magnate, pledged in 1997 to donate $1-billion to the United Nations over a decade.

The impromptu gesture — Mr. Turner said he was "winging it" — was, at that time, the largest single pledge to one organization ever offered by an individual.

However, Mr. Turner's gift represented only $652-million of the $1-billion the foundation announced it had so far provided to the United Nations.

The rest of the money came from other individuals, as well as from foundations and governments.

How and why did a group in the enviable position of having a direct line to as much as $100-million a year come to raise additional support on its own?

The numbers reflect a sea change for an organization that has moved beyond simply seeking ways to spend a historic donation. Since the charity's spontaneous creation, its leaders say they have discovered that the best way to achieve their humanitarian aims, be it curtailing childhood disease or protecting historically important sites around the world, was by making partnerships with like-minded aid groups and donors.

This became a valuable lesson, indeed, after a stock-market downturn in 2002 greatly reduced Mr. Turner's personal wealth and philanthropic activities.

"The U.N. Foundation has increasingly become a convening platform where groups who want to work on larger-scale issues can collaborate," says Michael Madnick, a senior vice president at the charity. "This is less about being a money-in, money-out organization and more about leveraging the diverse and distinct assets of different sectors to brainstorm larger solutions."

Collaboration at Work

The partnership approach is perhaps best exemplified by the six-year-old Measles Initiative, which unites the resources of the United Nations Foundation, the American Red Cross, the World Health Organization, and Unicef in an effort to reduce measles deaths by 90 percent worldwide by the end of the decade.

To date more than 217 million children in poor countries have been vaccinated against the disease and as many as one million lives saved.

The United Nations Foundation has contributed $57-million to the more-than-$333-million undertaking — but, as important, it has helped coordinate a panoply of United Nations health and humanitarian resources in those countries.

"Only the U.N. can do the measles initiative," says David Harwood, the United Nations Foundation's senior vice president. "They are the only entity in the world that has the distribution mechanisms to do that kind of massive immunization campaign."

Mr. Turner continues to serve as the charity's chairman and remains committed to giving the full $1-billion he pledged.

As the partnership approach has blossomed, he has been giving about half of the $100-million a year he at first intended and now expects to pay off the pledge by 2013, several years after his original plan.

The charity's leaders say the decision was not made in response to Mr. Turner's stock-market losses. However, the ability to stretch out the gift helped the United Nations Foundation avoid the difficulties faced by some of Mr. Turner's other philanthropic outlets.

The Turner Foundation, in Atlanta, which supports environmental causes, laid off half of its staff members in 2003 and suspended grant making for the year.

Forbes estimates Mr. Turner's current wealth at $1.9-billion, down from estimates of $3.5-billion in 1997 and nearly $10-billion in 2000.

"I'm extremely happy with my selection of working with the U.N.," says Mr. Turner.

He expresses a strong belief in the United Nations's role as global unifier: "I don't think we'd have made it through the cold war without having that forum to let off steam and talk things out. We'd have had World War III, there's no question about it."

When Mr. Turner made his $1-billion pledge, he also publicly challenged other wealthy Americans to become more philanthropic, but says he does not want to take credit for the charitable activities subsequently undertaken by the software giant Bill Gates and the financier Warren Buffett, among others. ("I don't really know what motivated them," Mr. Turner says, adding, "They are doing a fantastic job.")

However, some charity leaders and others were wary of Mr. Turner's singular donation, fearful that it could give him excessive sway over the United Nations.

"The United Nations Foundation doesn't just give money to the United Nations, it helps shape the projects inside the United Nations," says Claudia Rosett, journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.

She adds, "The problem with that is that nobody elected Ted Turner. He's just rich."

To head off such criticism, Mr. Turner organized the United Nations Foundation as a charity, rather than a private foundation, so that its board would have to be independent of him.

The charity's leaders say Mr. Turner refers to himself as "just one banana — just one of the bunch" when describing his position as board chairman.

Overcoming Skepticism

Mr. Turner's pledge was made at a time when the United States government was more than $1-billion behind in its obligation to financially support the United Nations.

The cable-television pioneer first looked into buying the debt and later trying to collect from the U.S. Congress. This approach was not legally possible, nor was he, as an individual, able to directly donate to the United Nations.

The United Nations Foundation was created to accept Mr. Turner's gift, and the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships was established within the United Nations to link the charity with the international body and its secretary general.

The foundation felt a tremendous sense of urgency when it first started making grants, recalls Timothy E. Wirth, the charity's president. The organization wanted to head off those people who were "skeptical and cynical" about Mr. Turner's gift.

"We were firing money out the door in the first three years, with the U. N. pulling projects off the shelf," says Mr. Wirth, a former U.S. senator from Colorado. "We had to prove that this was legit, and that in fact he was going to provide the funds."

By 2002, the new Measles Initiative was bearing fruit and the charity had identified four broad topics to tackle through its projects: children's health, the environment, peace and human rights, women and population. Mr. Wirth says that the foundation realized it was time to rethink the "firing money out the door" approach.

"We began to value our role as a broker helping to address problems," Mr. Wirth says. "This was much more valuable than just one-off projects, and we began our evolution."

The board also concluded that the new collaborative approach would be better served by slowing down the rate that the organization was spending Mr. Turner's commitment, which at around $100-million a year was scheduled to be exhausted by 2008.

Extending the gift until 2013 made it easier to enter into more long-term financial commitments and gave it some leverage when asking corporations, foundations, and governments to help out.

Joining Together

The foundation's Mr. Madnick says the Turner money continues to put the charity in a favorable position when developing partnerships.

"We can speak to philanthropists as a peer and we can speak to corporations as credible co-founders," he says. "'Collaborative solutions to large-scale problems' is the tag line I use when talking about the U.N. Foundation. That's a little bit different than saying we have a vision of what we want to do and we'd like you to fund it."

Examples of the charity's collaborations include:

  • Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition, which raised $142-million so far to increase access to birth-control supplies in the developing world to combat exploding birth rates and the spread of AIDS. The U.N. Foundation is working with the World Health Organization, as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave $4.8-million to the cause, and the United States Agency for International Development.

  • Energy Future Coalition, an $11-million undertaking that brings together business, environmental, and labor leaders to discuss global energy challenges, including how to help poor countries meet their energy needs amid rising costs. The Annenberg Foundation gave $250,000 to support the project, while the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation gave $150,000.

  • World Heritage Alliance, a $260,000 program that promotes the importance of protecting sites of significant natural or cultural importance around the world. The online travel company Expedia is a major corporate supporter, donating $220,000.

The charity, says Mr. Harwood of the United Nations Foundation, is currently considering seeking other organizations to join a campaign to help impoverished adolescent girls in poor countries, who often face a lack of educational opportunities, sexual exploitation, and an increased risk of exposure to AIDS.

And the United Nations Foundation has also joined other collaborative humanitarian efforts.

Among its grants: giving $155-million to the 32-year-old, $5-billion Polio Eradication Initiative (which includes numerous national governments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Rotary International) and more than $5-million to the five-year-old, $6-billion Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria (which includes numerous national governments, the Gates Foundation, and the Kaiser Family Foundation).

Oil for Food

The United Nations itself has made headlines of late, though not so much for its humanitarian efforts and peacekeeping prowess as for allegations of corruption and scandal.

Perhaps the most damaging accusations stem from the "oil for food" program the United Nations ran in Iraq from 1995 to 2003.

The effort to help the then-embargoed nation acquire needed food and medicine has been accused by an international investigatory body — led by Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve — of illegally channeling millions in oil revenue and kickbacks to the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein.

The United Nations Foundation's leaders stress that, lost amid all the allegations of wrongdoing surrounding the program, millions of Iraqis did receive food and other life-saving humanitarian supplies.

"I don't think it affected our fund raising," says Kathy Bushkin, the charity's executive vice president, of the oil-for-food scandal.

"People saw it as a political issue," she says. "The understanding was that this program, that was ended, had been mismanaged, but that it was not related to the way our programs are run."

Mr. Turner acknowledges that the United Nations "is not a perfect body" but stresses that many of the operational failings and shortcomings ascribed to it could also apply to the United States government.

He has not said whether he plans to support the United Nations Foundation beyond his $1-billion commitment that now concludes in five years. Mr. Harwood says only that "that's a long way away off, and he's an incredibly generous person."

"Our objective as an organization is to develop robust programs," Mr. Harwood adds, "such that, regardless of whether Mr. Turner contributes more money or not, we would be able to continue."

Copyright (c) 2007 The Chronicle of Philanthropy