For most young men, a lifelong weekly breakfast with Granddad is fine fodder for midlife nostalgia. But when your particular grandfather is one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, it becomes the stuff of legend, and a handy preamble to your introduction at professional dinners or conferences.
So Casey Wasserman, grandson of former MCA/Universal chief Lew Wasserman, was fully prepared to have his Saturday morning breakfasts at Nate ‘n’ Al’s trotted out for the participants of a recent forum at USC on philanthropy.
At 25, Wasserman was the youngest and possibly the truest embodiment of a panel called “The New Philanthropists.” For the last six years, he has been president and chief operating officer of the Wasserman Foundation, but his education in charitable giving began at about age 4, when the senior Wasserman started taking him to the Beverly Hills deli for a couple of hours of interruption-free guy time, a tradition that continues to this day.
“We talk about everything,” the younger Wasserman says. “About school, about business, whatever, but that’s where I started learning about the importance of giving back. Because that concept is not something you’re born with. For me, it was part of what my grandparents have given me.”
Many of the things Lew and Edie Wasserman have given him were in evidence as he spoke his piece before an audience of foundation heads, nonprofit directors and other big guns in the local philanthropic community who had gathered at this daylong kickoff of USC’s new Nonprofit Studies Center. Not the least of which was an ability to be politely but unabashedly frank.
Moderated by Barry Munitz, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, the panel discussed the charitable predilections of the newest generation of philanthropists--the tendency toward grass-roots, hands-on grant making, the need for a less guilt-provoking solicitation model. Wasserman, collegiately handsome and the youngest attendee by at least 15 years, sat listening like a grad student on a panel of professors. Then he spoke. Polite, but not deferential, he took a conversation that had danced speculatively around a few hot-button issues and got very specific.
“The big charities have ignored my generation for years,” he said matter-of-factly, “because they knew they could count on our grandparents and parents. Now they’ve suddenly realized these people aren’t going to be around forever. It’s been a unique experience watching these charities scramble to get young people onto their boards.”
The attentions, he added, may be too little, too late.
“When we inherit, we’ll go out and find our own charities,” he said, going on to describe a group of successful people under 40 that he and other friends brought together “just to talk.” At the first meeting, they were setting up specific goals and agendas; by the second, they had been invited to dine with President Clinton at the White House to share their opinions about philanthropy.
“Young people got where they are by being aggressive, by carrying out their ideas,” he said. “You have to make giving an enjoyable experience, or they won’t do it.”
His speech was direct and confident, a very clear message from a man who, despite his youth, has been in the business of big giving for more than 20 years.
Establishing the Foundation
Lew and Edie Wasserman set up their family foundation in 1952, “long before it was fashionable,” Casey points out; since then they have given millions to a variety of local and national charities, including the Jules Stein Eye Institute, the Los Angeles Music Center, a plethora of colleges and universities and, perhaps most notably, the Motion Picture and Television Fund, which is the health care and retirement organization for the entertainment industry.
Although Edie defers all credit to her husband, she has long been the acknowledged powerhouse behind the foundation, which has remained family run; grant-making decisions continue to be made by Lew and Edie, their daughter Lynne, and Lynne’s children, Casey and Carol Leif.
“There’s never been an employee, never been an outside professional involved,” Casey says. He, on the other hand, had been helping choose grantees and manage the money “for as long as I can remember,” and so after he graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in political science, it seemed only natural he would take over this portion of the family concern. While choosing grantees remains very much a group effort, it is Casey who now oversees the distribution of about $6 million in grants each year.
The first thing that Casey, a child of the techno age, did was create a computer database so he could get a handle on the patterns of giving.
Not surprisingly, the foundation’s giving profile, though very fluid, reflected the personal histories of its founders. Jewish charities, film-related charities, local arts organizations and schools around the country have all benefited.
“Neither of my grandparents went to college, and now at any given time there are about 300 students going to school on Wasserman scholarships,” Casey says. And he would know, because over the last two years, he’s met with each and every one of them. “It’s a way to put a face on the money. And anyone who is dedicated enough to get a scholarship, I want to meet. Of course,” he adds with a laugh, “it was my grandmother’s idea.”
Although his parents divorced when he was quite young and he does not see his father, Casey says his is a very close family.
“Oh, we talk to each other every day, go out to dinner, go to the movies. Well, we go to the movies at my grandparents’ house,” he amends, laughing again. “That’s one of the perks of the business.”
A business that he says has never held any personal allure; he prefers sports over movies any day. “I love the entertainment industry, but I never wanted to be involved, so when I graduated, my grandfather said he would support me in any viable plan I could come up with.”
The plan he eventually hatched is the reason behind all those black-and-white billboards that have been springing up all over town, the ones with the odd, sexually suggestive messages: “On April 9, 12 men will go both ways.” . . . “On April 9, six women will show you their panties.” . . . “On April 9, a man will put his hands between another man’s legs and bark like a dog.”
April 9 was the date set for the first game of L.A.'s new arena football team, the Avengers.
“I looked at a lot of options,” he says, “including an NFL franchise, but I decided that this was a unique opportunity for an arena team.”
Unique because L.A. is still a city without a football team, with a brand-new space perfect for the 50-yard regulation field. But there is a chance that field will remain empty, at least this year. Last week, Arena Football League owners voted to cancel the 2000 season. The vote was the latest volley in an ongoing labor dispute; earlier this month, arena league players filed an antitrust suit against the league in an attempt to secure free agency and an end to “price fixed” salaries and contracts without injury benefits. League owners, who want to negotiate the first players’ agreements with a collective-bargaining unit, also accused the United Food and Commercial Workers Union of interfering with the Teamsters’ attempt to organize the players.
According to David Cooper, a spokesman for the league, there is some movement toward a possible settlement this weekend.
“There is a small window of opportunity” to save the season, he says, “but it is closing quickly.”
As an owner, Wasserman cannot comment on the negotiations, but the cancellation would undoubtedly be quite a blow. Not just financially--he paid $5 million for the franchise, which does not include coach and player fees or, for that matter, those billboards--but also emotionally. For much of the last year, he has dedicated himself to building the team, from hiring Coach Stan Brock, to overseeing the design of uniforms and the creation of a Web site.
Juggling the two jobs has been challenging. To make his life easier, he’s looking for a space in which to house offices for both ventures, as well as one or two staff members to work for the foundation, which, he says, has grown quite a bit in the last year. He doesn’t plan to change the nature or method of the foundation’s grant making; it will remain a reflection of family interests.
“We don’t have any real mandate,” he says, “so we get to look at everything. The bad side is we get approached for everything. But I like the opportunity to be flexible.”
Links With Other Programs
Personally, he has been working closely with Do Something, a national program that helps kids learn how to be active in their communities, as well as the Board of Library Commissioners for the city of Los Angeles. And then there’s the Wasatch Group, a disparate blend of 20- and 30-somethings he helped gather to discuss social problems and solutions. Named for the mountain range where they held their first retreat-like meeting, members included Elisabeth Shue, Jesse Jackson Jr., Tracey Edmonds (wife and business partner of music producer Babyface) and Timberland President Jeff Schwartz, as well as an assortment of other young luminaries from the arenas of politics, sports and business. They will meet for the third time this summer and have held town meetings and recruited one another for local causes.
It is this type of a loosely based confederation of wealth and influence that Wasserman believes is the future of philanthropy.
“People are going to be more proactive,” he says, “because that’s how they made their money. My grandfather always joked about the different phases of wealth: accumulation, contemplation, distribution. But now those have really been accelerated--the whole thing can take place in a year.”
Public expectations have also acted as a catalyst, he says.
“Public awareness is much greater, and there is a real crossover to the business world. Companies realize you can’t just take, take, take. That people expect you to give back.”
A bit of wisdom that Casey Wasserman has known all his life.
* Times staff writer Mike Terry contributed to this report.
* Mary McNamara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.