When Newsweek recently spoke of the “world’s leading Sister of Charity,” it was not referring to the late Mother Teresa but to Ted Turner, whose $1 billion pledge to the United Nations caused stunned silence and dropped dessert forks when it was first announced at a UN Association dinner last September.
Turner’s gift has undergone a number of subtle changes since then. First, the UN Foundation is not a foundation at all but a public charity, and accordingly will be soliciting outside funds. Second, the gift is not exclusively for the UN but includes “UN causes,” a term that is defined loosely enough to include organizations like the Worldwatch Institute, the World Resources Institute, and the International Women’s Health Coalition. A final change, one most likely to be of interest to Time Warner investors, is that contrary to initial reports Turner has not made any commitment to sell actual stock, and may instead elect to use dividends or other assets to cover his gift.
The exact size of the gift is capped at $1 billion, to be paid out in ten annual installments of $100 million each, but the final amount will depend on the performance of Time Warner stock. If the stock sags, the size of the gift goes down (Turner will give away no more than the equivalent value of 18 million shares of stock). If the stock price goes up, the gift remains capped at $1 billion.
Whatever happens to Time Warner’s stock price, it’s a very large gift, and to spend it Turner has chosen former United States Senator Tim Wirth, who until recently was Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs and the Clinton Administration’s point man on everything from refugees to global warming. Philanthropy caught up with Wirth in his temporary offices on Washington, D.C.’s New York Avenue. Among other things, he reveals that the UN gift was actually Plan B. In the months before Turner’s big announcement, he had seriously pursued the idea of buying out the United States debt to the United Nations, only to abandon the idea as impractical (what if the Republican Congress decided not to pay him back?).
PHILANTHROPY: What is a “day in the life” of Tim Wirth?
MR. WIRTH: First, right now I am trying to buy the light bulbs and print the stationary, and hire a few talented people. Second, we are in the process of building a broad-based board of directors.
PHILANTHROPY: Are you being besieged by calls and letters?
MR. WIRTH: My fax machine ran out of paper the first day.
PHILANTHROPY: Any culture shock in your first month on the job?
MR. WIRTH: I was in government for 25 years. It’s a welcome bath in the private sector.
PHILANTHROPY: How has your government service—both at the State Department and on the Hill—prepared you for this?
MR. WIRTH: I think serving in the Congress—if you do it right—is very much a high-risk venture, with major personal exposure. It is also very much of a self-starting operation if you are not in a safe district, and I certainly was not. That kind of entrepreneurial activity is really terrific preparation for this foundation, although it might not be for some foundations, because we want to do some of the things that are more difficult to do.
I am also very grateful for the five years I had at the State Department. I learned a lot about how you make —how you try to make—big governmental institutions change. One of the things we want to do at the UN Foundation is work with the Secretary General and support his goals for change at the United Nations.
PHILANTHROPY: What is your core mission?
MR. WIRTH: We have four central missions: supporting selected UN causes, strengthening the UN, telling the story about the UN and why it’s important, and raising other money.
PHILANTHROPY: How does it work? Will Time Warner stock actually be sold, or will the $100 million per year come from dividends and the like?
MR. WIRTH: Ted Turner has pledged $1 billion—or the equivalent in shares of Time Warner stock not to exceed $1 billion—which will be donated over the next ten years. Plus, there will be other funds that we solicit. But we are not going to set up a corpus, or endowment, from which we draw the interest.
PHILANTHROPY: You mention supporting UN causes, which include programs like the United Nations Development Program. Secretary General Kofi Annan has told reporters that he plans to control funds made available by Mr. Turner. How is that going to work?
MR. WIRTH: We are going to try to fund the greater part of our contributions through an office that the Secretary General is setting up under his control, to give him a little more leverage for the kinds of changes he wants to bring about.
PHILANTHROPY: Let’s talk about those changes. Senator Jesse Helms has written that “bureaucracies . . . are nearly impossible to dismantle” and describes the UN as the carrier of a “virus of [bureaucratic] centralization.” And just last December, in wishing you well on your departure from the State Department, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright praised your “willingness to break a little crockery” to get things done, and said such behavior would “undoubtedly be necessary and appropriate” in your new job dealing with the UN. It sounds like Jesse Helms and Madeleine Albright both think the UN is pretty recalcitrant.
MR. WIRTH: I think the beginning of Senator Helm’s quote is exactly right—institutions do get rigidified. They have a way of developing their own culture and their own direction and it is hard to change that—no question about that. But the Secretary General has undertaken an ambitious program of trying to get changes, and we want to help him.
PHILANTHROPY: With $1 billion over ten years you obviously have some carrots, but the United States spends more than that amount each year and has had minimal success with its reform agenda at the UN, such as spending cuts, getting GAO access to audit information, reducing the proportion of funding for peacekeeping operations, and so on. How does an outside actor like the UN Foundation expect to exert more leverage over the UN than the member states themselves?
MR. WIRTH: Let me give you a few examples. You mentioned the GAO, which has done a tremendous job in developing performance standards. I have retained Chuck Bowsher, the former head of the GAO for 15 years, to help us think not only about goal-setting, but how we might go about developing a package that would be translatable to the United Nations. Another way of changing the United Nations is to support UN agencies like the UN Environment Program and the UN High Commission on Human Rights that are run by some very competent people, who by force of personality and their political skill are going to be forging change. We want to help them.
PHILANTHROPY: Earlier, you said you wanted to do “the things that are more difficult to do.” What are they?
MR. WIRTH: We are committed to some urgent high visibility issues, like climate change. It is imperative that the UN and member governments come to terms with what Man is doing to the life support systems of this globe. There is a lot of denial out there—a lot of people don’t want to talk about it. It’s our job to try to move the issue and try to teach about the issue.
Another is stabilization of the world’s population. Nearly half the world’s population is 15 years of age or younger. What we do over the next few years related to the education of girls and the provision of family planning services is largely going to determine whether there are 7.5 billion or 10 billion or 12 billion people on the face of this globe in the next century. I don’t think there are very many people who believe that 10-12 billion people are going to provide the kind of environment that people are going to want to live in.
PHILANTHROPY: On the subject of population control, Ted Turner has been quoted as saying that “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. WIRTH: I think it depends on what you want for quality of life for people on earth. If you want everybody to be living at the level of people in India today, we can have that. We can divide the wealth of the world by 12 billion people and everybody can live at close to a subsistence level. But if you want a world where you have the resources to give education to people, job opportunities to people, health care to people, preservation of the environment, individual opportunity—you can’t do that if people are scrambling for survival.
PHILANTHROPY: : What about the counter-argument that some of India’s problems are at least partly government induced, the result of statist economic policies, and that you see much higher concentrations of population in wealthy countries like Japan or The Netherlands?
MR. WIRTH: That’s the kind of analysis that sounds good if you say it fast enough, but it’s absurd to suggest that it is government policies that are creating vast concentrations of poor people in Mexico City or Delhi or Sao Paolo. That’s not government policy—people are just looking for some place to go. There is an economic pie, and it is not growing as fast as population is growing.
PHILANTHROPY: Has Ted Turner always been fascinated with multilateralism?
MR. WIRTH: Ted has always been a major supporter of international cooperation. He founded the Goodwill Games when the United States and the Soviet Union weren’t getting along, weren’t talking to each other. He flies the United Nations flag over CNN Center. He’s just a person who recognizes that we are all in this world together, and that we have to get along and work together.
PHILANTHROPY: How did you get to know Ted Turner?
MR. WIRTH: I first met Ted Turner when I was a Member of the House of Representatives. I was chairing the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance. One of our missions was to open up competition among the over-air broadcasters. Ted Turner was one of the first to recognize the opportunities that were going to come about. We got to be good friends, and after he married Jane Fonda, my wife and Jane became good friends.
PHILANTHROPY: Last September Mr. Turner went on Larry King and unexpectedly announced the gift, giving no details, and saying things like “I always loved that Coca-Cola commercial where all the kids got on the mountaintop and sang ‘We are the world.’” Isn’t this a pretty big decision to make on the spur of the moment?
MR. WIRTH: I don’t know about that. It is a decision that he feels very good about. Ted Turner realized that he was worth $1 billion more than he had been a year ago, and he said ‘Hey look, I’m not any better off than I was and so maybe I can do something more creative with this money,’ so he gave it to something he’s always believed in. Also, it’s not well known, but Ted Turner had been thinking about something like this for months. In fact, he was thinking about buying out the U.S. debt to the UN, but in the end it proved impractical.