Turner Supplies Needed Boost to Overseas Giving
By Henry Goldstein
Reprinted with permission from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, September 1997

After a brief flurry of interest, Ted Turner's $1-billion gift to the United Nations has dropped off the front pages. Churlish articles have impugned his motives, questioned his mental state, and speculated whether the pledge will ever be paid.

Mr. Turner is regarded by Atlanta business leaders as a contrarian, an outsider, and an enigma-a fellow whose own local giving in no way justifies his calling other billionaires skinflints, as he has publicly done. His stinging rebuke of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and other super-rich people earns no points in Atlanta because he is not what the development trade calls an ``impact giver'' in his hometown.

In lampooning Mr. Turner, however, few observers are looking at the gift itself and at its potential to increase the total amounts that Americans give and to influence which causes and organizations receive that largesse.

For as long as Giving USA, the annual statistical compendium published by the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel Trust for Philanthropy, has been keeping tabs, American philanthropy has hovered at around 2 per cent of gross national product. In 1997, giving by Americans totaled nearly $151-billion. To raise that total to 3 per cent of would mean an additional $75-billion in donations a year.

Many professional fund raisers believe that such an increase is possible, because the wealth clearly is there. But it will not occur without other pace-setting billion-dollar gifts. Mr. Turner and George Soros, whose newly announced gift to Russia of up to $500-million brings his giving to well over the billion-dollar mark, have shown the way. Whether others will follow remains to be seen.

Mr. Turner's gift also has the potential to rekindle the waning interest by Americans in international charity. Those on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans who give seem content to follow the herd and support safe and conventional ``worthy causes.'' Few are bold givers, and their gifts seldom match the innovation and enterprise that originally inspired their fortunes. And none, other than Mr. Soros, have focused in a major way on international philanthropy.

Perhaps only a man who perceives himself to be different from other big donors can have the audacity to focus his wealth on the United Nations, an international, quasi-governmental bureaucracy whose image in the United States is so terrible that a generation of Presidents and Congresses have gotten away with withholding our nation's dues, making us big-time global deadbeats.

The idealism that accompanied the U.N.'s founding in 1945 fell victim to the Cold War, and though it resurfaced for a while after the fall of Communism, the continuing humanitarian work of its hundreds of agencies is now seldom reported on, except at moments of catastrophe, such as earthquakes, floods, famines, or the sporadic outbreak of ``small'' wars all over the world. Even Mr. Turner's Cable News Network ignores most of the day-in and day-out operations of the United Nations and its agencies, for the very good reason that not much of it will make a reporter's blood race, or entice advertisers.

Once high in public consciousness, humanitarian interest beyond our borders, on any systematic basis, has waned. Except for those often-strident-and patently contrived-infomercials hawking overseas relief appeals, internationalism is disappearing from America's list of charitable priori-ties.

According to the 1997 Giving USA, gifts to organizations dealing in international affairs totaled $1.97 billion, or 1.3 per cent of all money donated in 1996-down from a high of 1.7 per cent in 1994. That 1.3 per cent is well above the percentage of its national budget that the United States devotes to foreign aid, yet Americans persist in believing that a much higher percentage goes overseas.

Our political leaders have encouraged us to believe that foreign aid is a vast waste-pool. No doubt some of it is. But the profound significance of Mr. Turner's philanthropy is that it reawakens and legitimizes overseas giving. It emphasizes extra-governmental support of elementary health, welfare, relief, and education efforts. It reminds us that we are, more than ever, one world.

Henry Goldstein, president of the Oram Group, a fund-raising consulting company in New York, is a regular contributor to these pages. Click here to send an email.