February 09, 2014

As Ted Turner’s $1-Billion Pledge Ends, U.N. Fund Seeks New Donors

Stuart Ramson

The charity is building ties to young business leaders like Ryan Allis (third from right), who has pledged to donate 1 percent of his technology company’s profits.

This year, the United Nations Foundation will learn that deep pockets are not, in fact, bottomless.

That’s because Ted Turner, who started the foundation with a staggering $1-billion pledge in 1997, is due to make his last payment next summer.

To keep the money flowing in the post-Turner era, the foundation is wooing others with deep pockets in the corporate world and is on the lookout for leaders made in the mold of the charity’s founder: entrepreneurs equally dedicated to striking it rich and helping improve people’s lot throughout the world.

When Mr. Turner made the pledge, which helped trigger a series of other outsize gifts from the wealthy, he considered bailing out the United States, which was far behind in its dues to the United Nations. Instead, he decided to create a foundation to support the U.N.’s global mission and build public support of the international organization.

Through the foundation, Mr. Turner and a roster of international-development leaders he helped recruit have used the pledge to support United Nations projects scattered across the map. The foundation has helped build solar-powered irrigation systems in Zambia, handed out mosquito nets to refugees in Kenya, and taught basic health care and nutrition to girls in Guatemala.

To prepare for when the Turner lifeline is cut, the foundation will again travel—this time to Peoria, Ill.

Hiring 'Relationship Managers’

The Midwestern city is home to Caterpillar, the construction-equipment manufacturer. Last year, the company’s foundation contributed $1-million to the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up campaign, a social-media project that organizes American girls into donor clubs and tells them about challenges faced by young women abroad.

On the heels of Caterpillar’s initial donation to Girl Up, the foundation is looking for a “relationship manager” to work directly with the company to identify causes that could win its support in the future. The foundation plans to add more such specialized fundraisers over the next few years.

Strengthening ties with Caterpillar is part of a broader strategy by the foundation to remain vital after the Turner pledge expires.

The foundation has also attracted a cadre of well-connected young entrepreneurs to serve as advisers and has recruited new board members who are business and media experts.

The changes are designed to help the nonprofit do more to build ties with companies and to deepen its connections with wealthy donors, say the foundation’s leaders.

Richard Parnell, the group’s chief operating officer, is confident the strategy will help the organization continue beyond the Turner era—up to a point.

The problems the United Nations seeks to solve will long persist, Mr. Parnell says. But, he adds, it is unclear how long the foundation will last.

“I don’t like to say the U.N. Foundation will be here in perpetuity,” he says. “That’s not in our DNA. We know we’ll be here for the next 15 years. After that, I don’t know.”

Big Gift Gap

The group will have to work hard to fill the hole left by the absence of Mr. Turner’s annual gift, which in recent years has come in at $50-million. (Through a spokesman, the philanthropist declined to say whether he plans to give any more once he fulfills the pledge.)

So far, the foundation’s efforts to raise money from people other than Mr. Turner have shown small growth: Contributions from others rose from $67-million in 2008 to $72-million in 2012, but that amount is essentially flat after inflation is taken into account.

During those years, donations fluctuated, in part because of the economic downturn and in part because the foundation received $60-million for a special effort to fight measles and rubella.

The United Nations Foundation won’t say how much of its private support comes from individuals and how much from corporations or other grant makers. But it is clearly placing a big bet on big companies like Caterpillar as it retools its fundraising strategy.

Within five years it aims to hire fundraisers specifically to work directly with at least 10 “anchor” donors like Caterpillar, says Mr. Parnell.

“You need someone who sits inside the organization and lives and breathes with the partner,” Mr. Parnell says. “You want someone who is their go-to on a daily basis.”

The nonprofit plans to add staff as it aims to grow over the next several years. Some new hires may be traditional fundraisers; others will be skilled in building online “constituencies” to support causes; and others will be assigned directly to work with corporations and foundations supporting the U.N. Foundation. The foundation declined to say how many people it plans to hire.

Caterpillar, which is deciding how much to give to Girl Up this year, says it is exploring possible contributions to other foundation programs.

The foundation’s attentiveness strengthened interest among Caterpillar Foundation executives. The corporate foundation’s initial gift came after its members observed the United Nations Foundation’s work promoting health and nutrition among adolescent girls in Guatemala, and after participating in a Girl Up Leadership Summit in Washington

“We were able to see firsthand the global impact of this 'girls-for-girls’ campaign,” says Michele Sullivan, president of the Caterpillar Foundation, in an email to The Chronicle.

Multiplier Effect

Mr. Parnell sees his group as a platform for companies to work with the United Nations—a “mother ship,” he says, that can develop splashy campaigns to attract the support of larger companies with large marketing budgets to promote them.

In its Nothing But Nets drive, for instance, the foundation raised $45-million over seven years to provide mosquito nets to help prevent malaria.

To do so, the foundation worked with the United Nations to assess where the need was greatest. Then it got the National Basketball Association, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and major-league soccer teams involved as sponsors. Sports fans were encouraged to design their own fundraising competitions and post their results on the campaign’s website. The United Nations and other international groups, including the World Health Organization, deliver the nets to regions rife with malaria.

In another campaign, called Shot@Life, Walgreens donated the cost of 3 million vaccines, one for each U.S. customer who got a flu shot or vaccine at one if its stores. The drugstore chain, which promoted the campaign in national television spots, donated the money to the United Nations Foundation, which passed it to the Global Polio Eradication Partnership and the Measles and Rubella Initiative. The effort now has several partners, including Rotary International and the American Red Cross. Nearly 200,000 people have pledged to contribute to the effort, according to the campaign’s website.

The United Nations Foundation declined to share the total amounts raised so far for Girl Up and Shot@Life.

Initial Concerns

When Mr. Turner first announced his gift in 1997, critics questioned whether he would have outsized influence on the United Nations and worried that the organization wouldn’t remain independent and accountable.

Mark Lagon, a professor at Georgetown University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was among the people who greeted Mr. Turner’s gift with skepticism.

Over the years, Mr. Logan says, the foundation has become a “constructive platform for partnerships” among companies, governments, and individuals.

“It’s not all Turner money,” he says. “The U.N. Foundation will remain an important actor because of the partnerships it’s built.”

The foundation has made a special effort in recent years to reach out to people who are still making their fortunes, thereby making connections with a new generation of donors.

In 2011, it created a Global Entrepreneurs Council, on which young professionals, largely from the technology industry, serve two-year stints. Members, who are recruited by the foundation, attend board meetings twice a year and participate in overseas trips to learn about the foundation’s programs.

The council has advised older staff members at the U.N. Foundation on ways to fine-tune social-media approaches, Mr. Parnell says. The presence of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and “Wall Street types” has also helped the foundation build ties to potential donors.

“The dollars are important, but it always goes back to relationships, relationships, relationships,” he says.

For instance, Angela Mwanza, a wealth adviser at UBS Financial Services, says that while she was on the council, she helped steer donors she met through her work to the charity.

Donor Outreach

Some of the council members themselves might become big donors to the United Nations Foundation.

Ryan Allis hit the jackpot once, in 2011, when he sold his company, iContact, for $169-million. He’s hoping to score again with his new venture,, a company that helps people use their mobile devices to stay in touch with friends.

Mr. Allis has pledged to give it 1 percent of his profits and 1 percent of the sale price if the company is sold.

He says he has asked other council alumni to make the 1-percent pledge. A foundation spokesman says a “couple” of such commitments are being planned.

Mr. Allis picked the foundation as a beneficiary because of its close ties to the United Nations, which he calls a “global connector of humanity.”

Mr. Allis joined the Global Entrepreneurs Council in 2011. While serving, he traveled regularly to Africa to observe the foundation’s work.

He also invited foundation leaders to his start-up’s office in North Carolina so he could teach them the finer points of conducting online campaigns. He helped the foundation change its email appeals from a densely written “pamphlet” approach to lively video messages that drew potential donors more effectively to the organization’s website.

When Mr. Allis formally debuts at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in March, the foundation will be there to lend support. Its presence, he says, will give the company an opportunity to “align its brand and mission” with the foundation.

“It helps us with our future customers and employees,” he says. “We’re working for a cause larger than ourselves.”

Send an e-mail to Alex Daniels.