Welcome return of the Great American Benefactor

John Carlin finds signs that Ted Turner's startling $1bn donation to the UN may start a stampede among the US super-rich
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The Independent Online
Problem: you've got a couple of million dollars in spare change that you would like to donate to a good cause but, not being familiar with the charity business, you don't know where to begin.

Solution: you ring up an outfit called the Philanthropic Initiative in Boston and ask for a man called Peter Karoff, who makes it his business to advise rich benefactors anxious to obtain worthwhile returns on their investments.

Ted Turner did not need any help because, as a man who has made his fortune in the news business, he fancies himself to be knowledgeable about the affairs of the world. His decision on Friday to give $1bn (pounds 625m) to the United Nations was irresistible, combining as it did an opportunity to do good with a dazzling coup de theatre.

With President Bill Clinton due to address the General Assembly in New York tomorrow, Mr Turner's gesture dramatically focuses world attention on the failure of the curmudgeons in Washington to pay off over- due debts to the UN that amount, coincidentally, to about $1bn.

So shed no tears for Mr Turner (who is still worth an estimated $2.2bn), but do pity the tyre tycoon in Detroit, the textiles giant in New Jersey, the self-made chicken-feed millionaire in Oklahoma. "People out there have a yearn- ing to do the right thing, but they are overwhelmed and confused," Mr Karoff says. "Many would wish to give more of their money to good causes, but they don't know what to do. They worry about how to allocate their money between their families and society. They fear unleashing a tide of requests. And they don't trust not-for- profit organisations. They're concerned their money will be squandered."

The key point, Mr Karoff explains, is that the rich have made their money by ruthlessly efficient pursuit of profits, and they hate - nay, detest - the notion of their hard-earned money not being put to productive use. That is the market niche he has found for the Philanthropic Initiative, an organisation he founded nine years ago to provide consultancy services for wealthy donors. But it too is idealistic in its intentions, designed "to promote the ethic of philanthropy here and abroad". Mr Karoff ploughs all the money he makes from consulting into conferences, workshops and research.

Familiar as he is with the grand gesture, Mr Karoff found Ted Turner's move stunning. "Here's someone who's putting his money where his mouth is. Thrillingly, he's saying we're global, we're not just the US - we have responsibilities all over the world."

Not, he notes, that the CNN founder is setting a new trend. He might accelerate it, "because he is noisier than most and more dramatic", but he is following where others have been. Notably George Soros, the Hungarian- born financier who has more than atoned for having crushed the Bank of England when he bet against the pound in 1992 by donating $1bn to promote democracy in eastern Europe.

Mr Soros, a US citizen, has channelled many millions more to causes as diverse as the promotion of education in South Africa to helping improve care for the terminally ill through a $20m initiative called Project on Death in America. Less well-known is the largesse of Walter Annenberg who sold America's best-selling publication, TV Guide, to Rupert Murdoch and promptly pumped $500m of the proceeds into America's needy state schools.

In America, where hatred of taxes runs deep, a tradition exists of donating money to causes which in Europe governments would fund. Last year Americans gave away a grand total of $150bn. So numerous are philanthropists that this year a magazine was launched, specifically targeted at rich donors. American Benefactor is a subscriptions-only publication for donors in the $20,000-plus range yet the owners, whose advertisers include Rolex and Mercedes Benz, expect to be running at a profit soon.

Its premise is that, with a little prodding, many more of America' three million millionaires will be persuaded to join in "the greatest shift of wealth in history". The plan is to encourage, if necessary to shame, the rich into joining its elite group of subscribers. Thus the May issue ran an article railing at the thirtysomething millionaires the computer business has spawned who refuse to do their bit to address "the archipelagos of poverty" in America's "sea of affluence". "The Misers of Silicon Valley" focused attention on the potential of Bill Gates, the world's richest man worth an estimated $38bn, to become the modern Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie, the Scottish emigrant who made a fortune in the American steel business at the turn of the century, set the standard for all philanthropists that followed. Author of a book called The Gospel of Wealth, Carnegie argued that a rich man should give away his surplus wealth. This he did by setting up numerous institutes of learning and building 3,000 public libraries, 660 of them in Britain.

Mr Gates, almost as if stung into action by the article in American Benefactor, has since announced that he is doing a cyber-Carnegie and spending $200m of his own money to connect every library in the US to the Internet.

That still only represents a tiny fraction of the Microsoft chairman's total wealth, $50m of which he has spent on his new home in Seattle. He is a long way short of Mr Turner, who will be depositing fully 30 per cent of his money into the UN over the next 10 years. Mr Gates may try and up the ante: his bitter rival, Oracle's Larry Ellison, threw the gauntlet down on Friday, within a matter of hours of Mr Turner's announcement, declaring he was putting up $100m towards providing California's schools with computers.

Suddenly, Mr Turner's dream that America's filthy rich should measure their prestige by how much money they give away, not by their rankings in Forbes magazine's list of the world's wealthiest people, might become a reality. His heroic act of do-goodery may have started a stampede.