Public Figure Philanthropy: Turning Passion Into Public Service
Moderator Michael Milken started off the discussion with a few key facts: Each year more than $260 billion is raised for philanthropic causes in the United States. Most of this money comes from individuals, not institutions. Add to this another $20 billion donated by corporations, and philanthropy comprises around 2 percent of GNP, excluding giving in terms of volunteering time.
In this context, Milken led three celebrated philanthropists -- Andre Agassi, Michael J. Fox, and Ted Turner -- in offering their perspectives on this vital sector of our society.
All three panelists had compelling motivations for their start in the charity arena. Michael J Fox, who has suffered from Parkinson′s disease since age 29, bluntly stated, "I didn′t volunteer, I was recruited." Although he kept his condition private for years, once he disclosed his illness, he realized he was part of a much larger community. From that realization, he "felt a responsibility to channel that energy and help the promise meet the reality, the money meet the science."
Similarly, Andre Agassi turned his own experience with the educational system in his native Las Vegas into a desire to improve the school system there. He began to get involved with local charities, he said, "but at the end of the day, I realized I was sticking Band-Aids on issues." He felt that he needed to get more involved with the learning process itself and created the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a K-12 school for children in one of the city's most challenged neighborhoods.
Ted Turner's passion has always been building connections with other people and nations. In response to the U.S. and Soviet boycotts of each other's Olympic Games, he founded the Goodwill Games in Moscow in 1986, bringing the people of these two nations closer. Turner again got involved international affairs in 1997 by giving $1 billion to the United Nations and by asking other wealthy citizens for their donations, as well. His heart seems to be in issues that are larger than life, yet he finds ways to bring them to the forefront and make them a reality.
Another theme that resonated with the panelists was looking toward the future. Each has set out ambitious goals. For example, Fox said he hopes he can help "to cure the disease." Agassi said he hopes his academy can become a model blueprint for similar schools around the country, and possibly in elsewhere around the world. Turner's goals are large: improving the role of women in society and working quickly to heal the environment (something he′s been passionate about for decades).
Milken noted encouragingly that we may be the first generation to see cure a disease in our lifetime. Fox responded by acknowledging that the late actor Christopher Reeves was his role model and had taught him that hope is based on knowledge and that, in contrast with optimism, "hope is informed." In the past, he said, America had the vision, but not the technology. "Now we have the technology," he said, "but not the vision."
In terms of their overall philosophy, Agassi explained that he had brought over some of the lessons from tennis to the world of charity. In both areas, he said, you should "use each day as an opportunity to get one day better." And Turner said he has learned in philanthropy, as in business, that change comes through people helping each other.
On broader issues like the end of nuclear proliferation and finding the right people to help their foundations. Turner mused that "if we can survive the next 50 years we′ll make it -- we′ll be here till the sun goes out." And Fox added that people should get involved for the right reasons.