In a field replete with controversial characters, Ted Turner stands out. Whether responding to a question about Pope John Paul II by telling a Polish joke, or describing how he entered into the recent merger of AOL and Time Warner “with as much or more excitement and enthusiasm as I did on that night when I first made love some 40 years ago,” Turner’s pronouncements never fail to capture the media’s attention.
Turner made his mark in business by turning his father’s billboard business into a thriving concern, then bought a failing UHF station because it occurred to him that he could use unused billboards to draw viewers to the channel. He would later sell Turner Broadcasting System to Time Warner for $9 billion, thus setting the stage for some truly big-league donations.
Turner’s philanthropy has ranged from traditional land conservation (Turner owns roughly 10 percent of the privately owned bison in the world) to a passel of activist and anti-nuclear groups. And of course there is the $1 billion pledge to the UN Foundation.
A self-described workaholic (his legal residence is a 700 square foot apartment in one of CNN’s towers in Atlanta, and he once described himself as “a New York City taxicab that has three drivers driving 24 hours a day, seven days a week”) Turner is nevertheless reluctant to get overly involved in the mechanics of his own philanthropy, preferring to delegate. “I can’t work at Time Warner and be full-time at the UN Foundation.”
In his first Philanthropy interview, Turner describes his most difficult gift (“When I finally was about to sign the papers, my hand that was holding the pen was shaking”), takes aim at donor intent (“If I get outvoted [at the Turner Foundation], that’s just how the cookie crumbles”), and offers his theory as to why more wealthy entrepreneurs don’t give more (“The people who are driven to work hard enough to make super-large amounts of money are usually so busy making it that they don’t think much about giving it away”).
Turner also explains why he views population growth as analogous to a “cancer,” why it isn’t enough that the world’s population is expected to stabilize at 10 billion (“Already over half the people in the world go to bed hungry, or are malnourished. So what are you going to do if you double the population?”), and why his foundation only owns one stock (“That way I don’t have to worry about a whole bunch of stocks every day”).
Philanthropy interviewed him at his office at CNN Center.
PHILANTHROPY: You have said that “there is no greater joy in life than giving to worthy causes.” Why is it such a great joy to give away money—shouldn’t it be painful?
MR. TURNER: Let’s take another example of something that’s painful but also joyous. You’re taking on a lot of responsibility when you have children and it’s a lot of work, but it’s also one of the great joys in life.
PHILANTHROPY: So joyous, painful, how about scary?
MR. TURNER: I always gave away a reasonable amount, but when I became a big donor, it was a bit scary. My father used to say you have to save your money, son, because there’s going to be a big depression. I really believe that one reason some people don’t give is out of fear—fear that they are going to be broke in their old age. I know that because that nagging fear was one of the things I had to overcome. I had to realize that, as long as you have a couple of hundred million dollars, you can probably make it along with your Social Security.
PHILANTHROPY: Judging by that standard, was the UN your hardest gift?
MR. TURNER: I would say the hardest one was several years before that when I gave several hundred million dollars to the Turner Foundation and to several educational institutions that were closest to me. I would say that was the hardest one, because when I finally was about to sign the papers, my hand that was holding the pen was shaking.
PHILANTHROPY: You are referring to the $75 million you gave to Brown University, The Citadel, and the McCallie School in Chattanooga. When you made that gift, you told your lawyers you would not place conditions on it, saying it would be “Indian Giving” to donate the money and then potentially pull it back.
MR. TURNER: The way Lee Bass did with Yale.
PHILANTHROPY: And you have a pretty relaxed attitude about your own foundation. Your son Teddy relates, when you were outvoted once, and “we thought it was the end of the world,” that you just laughed it off and said, “Think on your own; do the right thing.” On the other hand, you have been very clear about your intentions for much of the land you own. Your Flying D Ranch near Bozeman, Montana, is protected by a conservation easement that extends in perpetuity. The easement protects 128,000 acres of the land precluding development of any kind, to the point where you had to get special permission to do an archeological dig on your own property. It seems that in some of your giving you have been very prescriptive, in other cases you have been willing to be more open ended.
MR. TURNER: Well, with an easement, you have to put in the papers what it is you are agreeing not to do, or agreeing to do. That’s just the way it is. As far as trustees of a foundation, I’m not going to be here forever, hopefully. The kids are going to have to start running the foundation someday; they might as well start running it now, or learning how to run it. But if I get outvoted, that’s just how the cookie crumbles.
PHILANTHROPY: What do you want the Turner Foundation to do when you are gone?
MR. TURNER: I want it to do good, that’s all. That gives them plenty of room to maneuver.
PHILANTHROPY: In 1997 you said, “I’m putting every rich person in the world on notice. They’re going to be hearing from me about giving money away. If you want to lead, you’ve got to go out front and lead—you’ve got to blow the horn and get out in front of the parade.” You seem to be setting a trend. Now there are lists of top donors, and this year the price of admission to the Slate 60 has more than tripled—to $15 million.
MR. TURNER: I said that we’ve got this Forbes 400 list and we need to have magazines list who the biggest givers are because a lot of these rich people just want to be on some kind of list. They read about the list of the best football players and the biggest movie stars—and most rich people want to be stars too. It’s that need to be ranked—we like rankings. What’s your favorite food, what’s your favorite restaurant, what’s your favorite place to go on vacation. A number of magazines have come out with lists of the biggest donors, and I think it’s really helpful.
PHILANTHROPY: When earlier this year Denver cable TV mogul Bill Daniels gave $1 billion to provide college scholarships to needy kids in western states, he got almost no attention from the national media. Is this such an established trend that it’s going to keep going, or is the media losing interest and this is going to be a passing fad?
MR. TURNER: I can’t tell you what the media is going to do. It depends on how much prosperity we have, although there isn’t really much of a connection between how much people have and how much they give—the middle class gives more as a percentage than the richest people of all.
PHILANTHROPY: How do you explain that?
MR. TURNER: The rich get rich by not spending it. The other thing is that the people who are driven to work hard enough to make super-large amounts of money are usually so busy making it that they don’t think much about giving it away. That’s the great thing about the media labeling, which has given a higher profile to giving.
PHILANTHROPY: Fair enough, but you have been busy assembling a large fortune and you still took time to give away half of your net worth to charity over a six-year period. And you have gently chided some like Warren Buffett, saying that he should start giving now. Why should wealthy people give while they are alive, instead of dumping a large fortune into a foundation, to be spent after their death?
MR. TURNER: It depends on what your area of interest is. If you want to give to a university, they can use it in 20 years just as well. But, if you care about the environment or population, there are critical needs now. The same is true of AIDS and children’s health. If you wait 20 years to give the money, AIDS could be everywhere, and a lot of children will have died who could have been saved if they had received inoculations against infectious diseases today. By contrast, your university will still be there. The Catholic Church will be here in 20 years—they’ve been here for the last 2,000 years. I like Warren a lot, I really admire him, and I was doing it sort of tongue-in-cheek, because I really hope he does live 20 more years. But the people who are working on population, if he doesn’t give a little money now, they’re going to be pulling for him to go a little sooner so that they can get their money.
PHILANTHROPY: Does a successful entrepreneur bring some special abilities that might be useful in giving away their own fortune?
MR. TURNER: I don’t have an opinion on that. It just depends on the circumstances and what the donor wants to do. It takes a lot of work to give money away, and it takes a lot of time. Some people feel that they would be better off hiring professionals to figure out how to distribute it, and that includes me. I can’t work at Time Warner and be full-time at the UN Foundation.
PHILANTHROPY: What is the most difficult thing about giving money away?
MR. TURNER: Doing philanthropy—even on a small scale—takes work, intelligence, experience, and knowledge. If you’re going to do it right, it takes a lot of time, effort, and ability. Some people have it and some don’t, and people who are trained to do it should be better at it than those who are just taking it up late in life.
PHILANTHROPY: You describe yourself as a “collector of land” with more than 1.7 million acres under your control, more than any private individual in the country.
MR. TURNER: Yeah, but I’ve got a lot of desert in my portfolio. There’s a guy in California who’s got fewer acres, but his land is much more plush, and it’s worth much more than mine is. But, I like the desert. While it doesn’t produce a lot of money, unless there’s oil under it, it’s great for Gila monsters and roadrunners—and cactus. Cactus doesn’t grow too well in Northern California. There’s too much rain.
PHILANTHROPY: You have also given away conservation easements on more than 100,000 acres of the land you own. There are two strains in “environmental” philanthropy: one is buying land to “conserve” it, the other is funding activists to hector, sue, and otherwise lobby the federal government. You have done both. Which is more effective? Which has brought you more satisfaction?
MR. TURNER: It takes a multi-pronged approach. It’s like a military campaign. If you want to win a world war, you need to have a navy, an army, and an air force. And in that navy you need to have submarines, destroyers, aircraft carriers, cruisers, etc. The same with your army—you need tanks and flamethrowers. You need a multitude of weapons and you need to attack from every angle. For the environmental movement to win, you need publicity, activism, purchases of land—it’s not one single thing. You need to hit them high, low, and in the middle. And when you look at the totality of that effort, you could say we are winning. But we aren’t always winning. You win some, you lose some, and some get rained out. But this is an overall battle—the battle to save the planet—and we can’t lose it, because if the environment is destroyed, then we have no place to live. We are creatures of the environment and we are destroying it for the sake of a little economic joy right now. We have to be better stewards of our planet, we have to take better care of it. We’re even changing something as fundamental as our climate.
PHILANTHROPY: You don’t shy away from controversy—we ran your name through Nexis with “maverick” and came up with 750 hits. Any other big donors out there who you think are doing some particularly interesting giving?
MR. TURNER: Bill Gates. He’s the most successful businessman the world has ever seen, and it’s great for him to have taken the leadership position he has in philanthropy, having created the largest foundation that the world has even seen. Mike Bloomberg, whom you interviewed [Fall 1997 issue of Philanthropy] is pretty colorful. He’s a mentor of mine, along with George Soros and Miss Osceola [McCarty, the cleaning lady from Hattiesburg, Mississippi who gave away her life’s savings of $150,000 to scholarships to the University of Southern Mississippi].
PHILANTHROPY: You have said some pretty amazing things on the subject of population: “Population growth is analogous to a plague of locusts. What we have on this earth today is a plague of people. Nature did not intend for there to be as many people as there are.” Is that an extreme statement?
MR. TURNER: Well, if you go up into space and look at earth, the cities look like cancers—they’re brown, in a green and blue environment. And they’re spreading. If you do time-lapse photography of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Beijing, it is analogous to a cancer. I hate to say it, but remember, cancer cells exist in everyone’s body and they only become a problem when they start to multiply exponentially and start crowding out the cells around them—and that’s basically what humanity has done in the last couple of hundred years. But for millions of years our population remained fairly stable at between 30 and 40 million people all over the world. When I was born in 1938, there were just over two billion people on the planet, and now there are six billion. So the population tripled in 60 years, and it will increase by around another two billion in the next 20 years. Therefore, during an 80-year period, the population of the planet will have quadrupled. Conversely, during the last 60 years, the number of elephants on the planet is less than 10 percent of what they were. Similarly, rhinoceroses have been depleted by 98 percent. It is analogous to cancer, unfortunately.
PHILANTHROPY: The UN now predicts that by 2200 the world’s population will have stabilized, at around ten billion. Is that not acceptable?
MR. TURNER: Already over half the people in the world go to bed hungry, or are malnourished. So what are you going to do if you double the population? Have you been to India? Where are you going to double the number of people, and feed them, and provide them with energy and all the things they need to live a decent life. The world can’t support the six billion people that are here with everybody leading a decent life. It’s a finite world, and every person that’s added—if they are going to use anything, if they’re going to have food and clothing and housing and a lot to live on—that’s got to come from somewhere else.
PHILANTHROPY: Well, the Netherlands grew when the population grew. That’s a very densely populated country like Japan that’s also quite rich.
MR. TURNER: Yes, and it lives on imports from other parts of the world. Twenty percent of the people in the world use 90 percent of the resources.
PHILANTHROPY: But don’t they also generate 90 percent of the world’s products? The counter-argument to your case is that people are held back by statist economic policies, or lack of education, or brutal, corrupt governments, or indifferent elites who don’t care about helping the poor.
MR. TURNER: It’s very complex. One of the great problems we have in the world today is that the disparity between rich and poor nations and individuals is growing rather than closing. How can the United States, Western Europe, and Japan continue to enjoy a higher and higher standard of living while the developing world falls father and farther behind? It’s causing all this migration and illegal immigration in the world. My gift to the UN is at least trying to do something about it, instead of just standing around and complaining.
PHILANTHROPY: You’re nothing if not an entrepreneur. In 1979–80 you started CNN when nobody thought it was possible to have an all-news network. You hired 100 journalism students and other young people, trained them as producers and videographers over a summer, created a new headquarters with an unusual newsroom layout, successfully sued RCA in Federal Court to give you access to a spare satellite transponder, held off the Big Three networks, and generally packed three years of work into eleven months. Yet you also gave $1 billion to the UN and related causes. When people think of the UN they think of a big, bloated structure and it seems almost the reverse of what you have done with CNN.
MR. TURNER: The world spends more money on military music every year than the whole cost of running the UN.
PHILANTHROPY: Everybody seems to agree nowadays that large bureaucratic structures are inefficient and unable to change. Isn’t that a fundamental problem for the UN?
MR. TURNER: We’re not giving to the UN for administrative purposes. We’re giving to specific projects that are UN-endorsed, and we’re monitoring those projects. It’s not just the UN—you could make the same comment about any large organization, including the U.S. government. And the UN is 200 countries with people who speak different languages, with different cultures, and they are trying to work together for peace and security for human beings on this planet. It’s something we desperately need in a world with nuclear weapons, and with one atmosphere over the planet. We absolutely have to have a UN—just like we have to have a federal government. With largeness comes bureaucracy and inefficiency. But you just have to accept that. When you have large nations and large economies, you have to have these large institutions. And you try to make them as efficient as you can. I think the UN really tries to do that; it’s one of the few organizations I know that’s operating on a smaller budget today than it was five years ago.
PHILANTHROPY: Is it true that you originally explored the possibility of buying the U.S. debt to the United Nations?
MR. TURNER: Do you know what a repo man is? I thought about buying it at a discount and suing the U.S. government for it, but I found out I couldn’t do that.
PHILANTHROPY: You said recently that the only stock you own is Time Warner. What about your foundation?
MR. TURNER: It’s a simple strategy; that way I don’t have to worry about a whole bunch of stocks every day. My foundation, the Turner Foundation, has some bonds and some short-term securities, but basically it’s in Time Warner also. Which by the way is down today!