Billionaire Ted Turner is clear on the importance of the United Nations to building a better world.
What is the best investment that Ted Turner, 79-year-old billionaire founder of Cable News Network (CNN), has ever made? A US$1-billion-dollar gift in 1997 to the United Nations (UN), which was used to launch the UN Foundation.
“The gift was one of the best investments I have ever made,” says Turner, over interview by email. “The investment I made 20 years ago to start the UN Foundation will continue to pay dividends in health, peace, and progress for the world.”
Since its inception, the foundation has worked directly with the UN and other partners to help reduce measles and polio; to provide anti-malaria bed nets to families in Africa; to increase support for voluntary family planning; to promote the rights of girls and women; and to tackle climate change and expand sustainable energy solutions.
“The United Nations has long been one of my favourite organisations,” adds Turner. “It’s vitally important for the world to have a place where leaders can get together and solve global problems, and I’ve always believed that as long as countries are talking, we can avoid war with each other and bring peace and progress to the world.”
The media mogul made the gift partly because he wanted to fill a gap left open by the Clinton government. “It was well known that the US was behind on its payments to the United Nations, and I knew the good that the UN could do with a US$1 billion gift to support its causes,” recalls Turner. “It was also a chance to lead by example and show other wealthy people that we should use our resources to make the world a better place.”
His account has particular resonance two decades later, with Donald Trump’s lukewarm attitude to the UN. Only a few weeks into his first term as president, Trump had already drafted an executive order to reduce US contributions to the UN, calling it “wasteful and counter-productive”.
From a young age, Turner’s father instilled in him a sense of a philanthropic duty, teaching the importance of giving back to society, however much or little you have. The idea sowed a seed in Turner that became a dream to become “a big-time philanthropist”.
“From an early age, philanthropy was something I was always interested in, thanks in part to my father,” he says. “My father didn’t have a lot of money, but he was a generous person. I always contributed to the United Way and the Cancer Society, even when I was in my early 20s. If you don’t have money, you can always give time, and I did that: I gave time. I had modest means, so I couldn’t make large donations, but I made smaller donations that I could afford.
“I planned at an early age that if I made a lot of money, I would be a big-time philanthropist. And, fortunately, I achieved both wealth and success over the years. When I think about the money I’ve given away and see all the good things it’s done for our environment and for people in need, there’s no part of me that wishes I had held onto it for myself.” Now as the father of five children (two from his first marriage to Judy Gale Nye; and three from his second to Jane Shirley Smith), as well as being a grandfather many times over, Turner has instilled in his family the same sense of duty.
“All five of my children are very involved in the work of the Turner Foundation, which focuses on the protection of our Earth’s natural systems: land, air and water. Through our foundation work, we’ve been able to spend quality time together as a family and also feel like we’re making a real difference in the world, no matter our personal opinions or politics. And now, many of my grandchildren are becoming more involved in the foundation, serving on its junior board of directors.”
As well as co-founding the Nuclear Threat Initiative and setting up the Goodwill Games to promote links between East and West during the Cold War, Turner also joined The Giving Pledge, a campaign founded by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to encourage billionaires to give away most of their money.
“Even though I had already reached the goal of giving away half my wealth years earlier, it was still important for me to be a part of this group,” he says. “Being a Giving Pledge member continues to be a great way for me and the other pledgers to discuss and improve upon philanthropy, and to deliver on a promise for a better world for future generations.”
In his down time Turner loves riding across his vast ranch lands - two million acres - in the US and Argentina. He owns 16 ranches, bringing back endangered species from the brink of extinction. His mission is to support indigenous wildlife with a focus on bison herds — of which he owns the world’s largest herd. “Bison have always interested me because they take me back to the Old West — the way America once appeared." They’re also more environmentally friendly than domestic cattle when it comes to grazing, he points out, as they don’t strip away or trample the natural ecosystem; and their meat is leaner and healthier. As wild animals they don’t require inoculation, hormones or artificial insemination.
Now, nearing octogenarian status, Turner’s life has been full of ups and downs. Following his father’s suicide when he was just 24, Turner threw himself into a career and relationships with a fiery passion mired by mental-health issues, which he describes in his 1993 autobiography It Ain’t As Easy As It Looks. He has many regrets, but philanthropy helps him find peace.
“Just like anybody else, I’ve had to deal with tragedy and disappointment in my life and, sometimes, it’s hard to recover,” he says. “But, these days, I try not to live in the past and spend more of my time focusing on the work of my foundations, the environment and land and species conservation. This work keeps me going, and makes me feel like I’m making a real difference in the world and in the lives of other people.”
This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Celebration Issue, December 2017. To subscribe contact