Cable television entrepreneur Ted Turner announced Thursday that he will donate $1 billion over the next 10 years to fund United Nations humanitarian programs around the world in one of the largest single charitable donations in U.S. history.
Turner disclosed the gift during a speech here just hours after advising U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a private meeting. Because the U.N. is prohibited by its charter from accepting donations from individuals, the money will be channeled into a foundation that will support the world body's work in a number of fields, including helping refugees, combating disease, educating children and clearing land mines, Turner said.
"It's going to go to help the poorest people in the world," Turner told Cable News Network talk-show host Larry King in an interview after the speech.
The donation will come in the form of Time Warner stock funneled through the foundation. Turner's cable television empire, which includes the WTBS superstation and the TNT network in addition to CNN, merged with Time Warner last year. Turner, who is Time Warner vice chairman, said that, because of increases in the stock price, his net worth grew from $2.2 billion to $3.2 billion since Jan. 1, giving him the inspiration for the gift.
"A billion's a good round number," he said. He decided to make the donation only two days ago, "on the spur of the moment. It's like deciding to buy a new car."
U.N. officials, however, said Turner for some time has mused to Annan about erasing the debt owed the organization by the U.S. government. The U.N. calculates that the U.S. owes $1.5 billion as a result of its partial payment of past dues, although the Clinton administration sets the figure at $1 billion. The American shortfall is the main reason behind an ongoing financial shortage plaguing the U.N.
Under U.N. rules, Turner's donation cannot be substituted for the U.S. debt, nor does it eliminate the organization's money problems, which have led it to freeze some programs and delay reimbursement to member states that have advanced money for U.N. peacekeeping missions. But officials acknowledged that it will provide a major lift to a staff that often feels unappreciated in the U.S.
"This has tremendous symbolism," said Juan Carlos Brandt, a deputy spokesman for Annan. "It comes at a time when the U.N. has a tremendous fiscal crisis, and it comes at a time when some people are saying the U.N. basically is good for nothing and maybe ought to be shut down. This is a huge boost for morale and for our programs."
Neither Turner nor U.N. officials were able to say Thursday night exactly how the foundation might work and which programs might benefit. Turner did, however, rule out using the money for U.N. administration.
Turner announced the donation at a dinner where he was being honored by the United Nations Assn. of the United States of America, a nonprofit organization that encourages public support for the U.N.
Annan expressed gratitude for the donation and said, "This shows once again that one individual can make a difference."
Turner, 58, has shown a flair for the dramatic and unexpected throughout his career.
His career began with his father's billboard company in Georgia, and he started in television with a single UHF station in Atlanta in 1970. He was one of the first to recognize the potential of cable and developed WTBS into a national station by marketing to cable systems across the country. When Turner launched CNN in 1980, network officials wrote it off as a money loser and predicted its early demise.
Turner's sports ventures include being skipper of the sailboat that won the 1977 America's Cup and ownership of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, which has competed in four of the past five World Series. He is married to actress Jane Fonda, who, Turner said, was moved to tears when he told her of his planned donation.
In the past year, Turner has stepped up his charitable giving--he donated $28 million to various causes in 1996--and challenged other wealthy Americans to do the same. He particularly has called on billionaires Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft Corp., and investment strategist Warren Buffet.
On Thursday, he said he would be soliciting additional donations to the foundation to support U.N. programs.
"I'm putting every rich person in the world on notice: they're going to be hearing from me about giving away more money," Turner said.
U.N. officials said they thought the $1-billion donation was the largest contribution ever to a single recipient, although others have given more over their lifetime to various causes.