Charity: The biggest personal gift in the history of the world

Charity: On Thursday night, Ted Turner was the star turn at a New York dinner for American supporters of the United Nations. Mr Turner has always been vocal in his enthusiasm for the UN. But his pledge of a personal gift of one billion dollars stunned one and all. David Usborne shares in the shock.
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The idea came to Ted Turner some time in the middle of the week. Impulsive though he may be, he thought first to check it out with his wife, Jane Fonda. In his words: "It brought tears to her eyes".

Not just to Ms Fonda's. If they were not actually crying at United Nations headquarters yesterday, they might just as well have been. Mr Turner, the broadcast buccaneer and founder of CNN, had announced on Thursday night that he was giving the organisation $1bn (pounds 580m) of his own money.

This is no bagatelle, not even to Mr Turner, who last year sold his television business to Time Warner, where he is now vice-president. It represents almost a third of his total worth. As far as anyone can surmise, it is the biggest philanthropic gift made by any single person in history.

It is tempting to imagine tears also in Washington DC. Not of joy but rather of embarrassment. If the UN has been on its knees in recent times, scraping money together like a bum on the street, it has been because of the failure of the US government to pay up back dues of about $1.3bn.

Mr Turner, who was attending a dinner of the United Nations Association of the United States, is not letting the US off the hook. The money will be paid into a foundation in $100m instalments over 10 years to finance programmes for refugees, children, the environment and clearing landmines. The missing US cash is for the UN bureaucracy; it will still be owing.

Pity President Bill Clinton, therefore, who is due to address the new session of the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday. The sub-text will be vivid. If one man (even if it does happen to be Mr Turner) can give a billion, what on earth is your problem, leader of the last, greatest and only super-power?

The happiest man at the UN is surely Kofi Annan, the newish UN Secretary- General, who got early word from Mr Turner on Thursday afternoon of what was to come. The donation is a giant boost to Mr Annan as he seeks to winkle the missing money out of the US while at the same time forging ambitious reforms to the make the UN more efficient and more accountable.

Mr Annan is suitably grateful. "It is a great gesture and it is a noble gesture," he said. "I hope others who are also fortunate and have the capacity to give will follow Ted Turners example". Sir John Weston, the British ambassador, also paid tribute to Mr Turner.

"This is a spectacular and imaginative gesture that will show how easy it is to do something to get the UN back on its feet again when there are people out there who believe in it enough". Easy for those with a spare billion, anyway.

Mr Turner, indeed, has not only promised Mr Annan to encourage others to contribute to the new foundation, but instantly challenged others with large fortunes to follow his lead. "I am putting every rich person in the world on notice," he told the CNN interviewer Larry King.

"There's a lot of people who are awash in money they don't know what to do with. It doesn't do any good if you don't know what to do with it. I have learned the more good that I did, the more money comes in. You have to learn to give. You're not born a giver. You're born selfish".

The extraordinarily dramatic impact of Mr Turner's announcement was heightened by the casual, almost off-hand, nature of its of its delivery. He decided on the amount, he said, because "a billion is a good round number".

He explained further that since December last year his net worth had grown from $2.2bn to $3.2bn. Thus the donation, which will be paid in Time Warner stock, represents the additional fortune accumulated over nine months. "I've still got $2bn left. If I make some more money I could give more away. This is just extra, you know ... this was sort of spur of the moment."

Mr Turner has long nurtured close ties with the UN. Two years ago, his CNN network was awarded a UN prize for its commitment to coverage of the UN. Nearly a year ago he used an appearance at a UN conference to attack Rupert Murdoch, his broadcasting nemesis, and liken him to Hitler.

He also - not without encouragement from his wife - has long worked as a champion of various liberal and environmental causes, extending to the herds of bison now roaming his Montana ranches. His other love, meanwhile, is baseball and the Atlanta Braves team, which he owns.

Billionaires' GAME

Ted Turner threw down the gauntlet to his fellow billionaires to follow his lead. One, he mentioned by name: Bill Gates (pictured) of Microsoft.

The timing is dastardly. This week, Mr Gates, estimated to be worth around $40bn, moved into a new home on the shores of Lake Washington near Seattle. How much did this temple of luxury cost him? About $50 million.

What may follow now is a game of billionaires' chicken. It is a race to see who can give away the most money in the shortest time and claim a place in history as the Andrew Carnegie of the 1990s.

Mr Gates has already vowed that he will pick a time to give up his stewardship of the software colossus he founded and dedicate the rest of his life to giving away his extraordinary wealth. A similar promise has been made by America's second richest man, Warren Buffett, who has accumulated a fortune of at least $8bn through his investment company, Berkshire Hathaway. He has said he intends giving away 98 per cent of it to a charitable foundation.

Mr Turner began his nagging over a year ago. It was then that he told the New York Times that he broke the spell cast on him and his peers by the Forbes list of the richest on the planet. "That list is destroying our country!", he declared. "These super-new rich won't loosen up their wads because they're afraid they'll reduce their net worth and go down the list."

Even before yesterday, the game had started. In June, the main contestants were Mr Gates himself and another computer tycoon, Larry Ellison of Oracle software. Ellison announced plans to spend $100 million on donating computers to schools. Barely six hours before the Ellison gift was unveiled, Microsoft came out of the trap with its own contribution to the greater good - a $200 million pledge to equip libraries with personal computers and software. There was fury at Oracle at what they believed was a deliberate ploy by Mr Gates to eclipse Mr Ellison's donation.

Just like Mr Carnegie, neither Gates nor Ellison were acting out of selflessness - both their companies stood to benefit. Through his gift to the UN, however, Mr Turner can expect only a warm feeling, and plenty of good publicity.

- David Usborne