On September 18, 1997 Ted Turner stunned an audience gathered at a United Nations Association gala dinner. He was there to accept UNA’s “Global Leadership Award” for his advocacy worldwide. Without prior notice, he announced that he was donating $1 billion to the United Nations.
He said he gave it two days thought– and changed the world of philanthropy.
It is also worth remembering the political context of this announcement. At the time, Congress was withholding American dues payments to the United Nations, putting the US in arrears. The United States is the largest funder of the United Nations so this political dispute in Washington, D.C. was threatening UN operations worldwide.
As he tells it, Turner wanted to give the money directly to the UN to help defray the effects of American arrears. It turned out that individuals could not contribute to the UN in this way, so instead he created the United Nations Foundation to support the work of the UN worldwide.
A contemporaneous account describes his thinking.
“When I got my statement in January,” he said, “I was worth $2.2 billion. Then I got another statement in August that said I was worth $3.2 billion. So I figure its only nine months’ earnings, who cares?”
Speaking live later with CNN’s Larry King, Turner said, “I’m no poorer than I was nine months ago, and the world is much better off.”
Asked how he came to pick the figure $1 billion, the irrepressible Turner said, “A billion’s a good round number.”
The rest is history.*