Ted Turner is a pioneer in many fields, including social investing. Maura Donlan takes a look back at how Turner transformed the philanthropic ecosystem while creating early prototypes of impact-first social businesses at the same time.
Ted Turner has a line. (He has a lot of them.) He is one to say with a twinkle in his eye: If only I were more humble, I would be perfect.
Well, he is not humble. And he is definitely not perfect. But he does have a knack for seeing around corners, peering over horizons, and navigating his way through treacherous waters (see his skillful skippering of the Tenacious at the legendary 1979 Fastnet race).
In the world of philanthropy, he arguably became the first mover in the modern era of “big donor” social investors in September 1997. Dismayed that the U.S. had defaulted on its dues to the United Nations, he gave a gift of US$1 billion in Time Warner stock to support U.N. programs. As The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof observed in 2012, “In nominal terms, before adjusting for inflation, that semi-accidental donation was, at the time, believed to be the biggest single gift ever made, and it has helped transform philanthropy.”
That same September night 25 years ago, Turner also declared, “I’m putting every rich person in the world on notice. They’re going to be hearing from me about giving money away. If you want to lead, you got to get out front and lead — you got to blow the horn and get out in front of the parade.’’
Some have questioned whether Turner’s loud and proud public approach was the right tactic to take with wealthy individuals. However, his forceful call for the rich to abandon their spot on the Forbes 400 list in favor of philanthropy rankings like the Slate 60 (which he helped inspire) has ultimately been followed by a dramatic increase in giving by ultrahigh net worth individuals, the formation of the Giving Pledge, and Global Citizen’s “Give While You Live” campaign. In a classic case where everything old is new again, the Slate 60 has since evolved into the more precise Forbes 400 Philanthropy Score, which is now embedded into the Forbes 400 list itself.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Turner’s giving was his early adoption of what is now termed “social investing across the returns continuum” and his intentional, long-term infusion of social responsibility into almost every aspect of his corporate and personal pursuits. A quick tour around what has been described as the “Turnerverse” (Turner’s orbit) can give you a sense of the breadth and diversity of Turner’s varied social impact pursuits.
Turner is probably best known worldwide for being one of the first to use satellites to beam TV signals back to earth, including the Cable News Network. When he launched the first 24-hour news channel on June 1, 1980, in Atlanta, he hoisted three flags — the state of Georgia’s, the United States,’ and (quite unusually) the United Nations’ flag. And he proclaimed before the first-ever broadcast went live his wish that, through CNN, “we can perhaps, hopefully, bring together in brotherhood, kindness, friendship and in peace, the people of this nation and the world.”
Forty-two years later, that exhortation seems naive and still so very distant (and yes, many argue that 24-hour news may have polarized us further). Nevertheless, he walked his walk. He banned the “F-word” — “foreign” in the CNN newsroom to combat “otherism,” and he went on to create significant media, sports, and philanthropic platforms — all designed to promote peace and understanding — like the Millennial-era Saturday morning cartoon, Captain Planet (1990-1996), which recounted the antics of a group of ethnically, racially, and gender diverse teens whose weekly collaborations with an environmental superhero saved the earth and promoted world peace (often at the same time!). Other Turner efforts to advance healing and cooperation include the Trumpet Awards (1993-present), the Goodwill Games (1996-2001), the United Nations Foundation (1997-present), and the Nuclear Threat Initiative (2001-present).
Meanwhile, closer to earth, Turner started purchasing land in the 1990s across the U.S. to keep large swaths of acreage intact, conserve species, take down fences, and let bison (and other animals) roam freely. While his 1.9 million acres (the equivalent of Rhode Island and Delaware combined) is out of reach for most people, his Turner Endangered Species Fund was intentionally founded in 1997 to demonstrate how private landowners (no matter the size of the patch) can contribute to saving imperiled species.
After Turner buys a property, he inventories the welfare of the indigenous flora and fauna. He then works with local, federal, and community leaders to restore rare and vanishing species. Over the last 25 years, Turner Endangered Species Fund has led successful reintroduction efforts for imperiled plants, birds, fish, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, from red-cockaded woodpeckers to gray wolves. Given that we are on the brink of the earth’s sixth massive extinction (this one having been caused by humans), private landowners — of large and small properties — have a big role in pulling us back from that brink. While Turner has lost the title of the largest private landowner in the U.S. (he is now in third place), he does own the largest bison herd in the world at 45,000 head. Whether by design or accident, his bison ranching and land stewardship led him down the path of “impact-first” social enterprise and impact investing — even before impact investing had a name.
Bison are indigenous to North America (cattle are not). They are a keystone species in that their presence, as habitat enhancers, benefits hundreds of other species — plant, mammal, and avian — that are part of a complicated web. Remove keystones, and the whole system suffers. Bolstering keystones enhances resiliency and fosters opportunities for rewilding by enabling failing species to have a second chance at recovery. At the same time, bison are considered sacred to Native Americans, and First Nation tribes in Canada, and, in 2016, bison were proclaimed to be the “national mammal” of the U.S.
Before European settlement, more than 30 million bison roamed throughout North America. By the turn of the 20th century, they had been hunted to near extinction. But for a diverse and tenacious group of Native Americans, First Nation Canadians, and conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt and James “Scotty” Philip, who all played a part in nurturing and protecting the remaining 300 to 500 bison, the entire species would have been wiped out. From that tenuous beginning, bison are now considered one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time. Fast forward to 2022, and there are more than 400,000 bison in North America.
By the end of the 20th century, it was clear that a market-based solution was needed to keep the bison herd flourishing and healthy. Counterintuitive as it may sound, to save the species, bison ranchers had to convince the American public to consume bison meat at a scale that had never been seen before. Bison are a highly procreative animal, and it was clear that they could rebound. The problem was that ranchers needed the economic inputs and incentives to husband the species. Enter: vertical integration.
In 2002, Turner joined forces with George McKerrow, a restaurant entrepreneur who had created the LongHorn Steakhouse chain. Together, they launched Ted’s Montana Grill, a restaurant chain designed to introduce the U.S. consumer to bison meat in a nonthreatening way. While bison meat is healthier than beef, and its production is easier on the earth and contributes less to climate change, cattle ranchers have a disproportionate influence on the U.S. market (just ask Oprah), and their product has held an iron grip on consumer preferences for generations.
Ted’s Montana Grill and similar efforts to market bison meat to the U.S. consumer have yielded real results. Since 2000, the consumption and production of bison meat have steadily increased. The bison herd is flourishing, thousands of jobs have been created, the American consumer has access to a healthier and more climate-friendly protein source, and the rise of bison — a critical keystone species — has restored more than 1.5 million acres to health in the American West. A wise impact investment, indeed.
Last year, Turner added an even more intentional systems change overlay to his regenerative agriculture efforts by donating one of his largest ranches, the 79,292-acre McGinley Ranch in the Sandhills of Western Nebraska, to the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture. The Institute operates as a nonprofit “agricultural research organization,” a vehicle specifically designed to encourage private philanthropic support of agricultural research. It works with South Dakota State University and its Center of Excellence for Bison Studies to study, practice, and disseminate sustainable strategies for conserving ecosystems, agriculture, biodiversity, and rural communities.
“Ted, we cannot afford to get discouraged. Even if we know the end is coming for certain, which we do not, what can men of good conscience do but try to keep doing the right thing until the very end?”
Hang around Turner long enough, and he will regale you with “Home on the Range” or “Don’t Fence Me In,” or, if he is in the mood, he will launch into reciting parts of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s 589-line poem “Horatius at the Bridge,” which he memorized when he was a classics major at Brown University. The epic poem recounts a single hero who triumphed over insurmountable odds to protect Rome from being sacked, thereby saving countless lives.
Then out spoke brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late; and how can man die better than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods,
I, with two more to help me, will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path, a thousand may well be stopped by three: Now, who will stand on either hand and keep the bridge with me?”
Oftentimes, it seemed like Turner was using Horatius as a call-to-action to anyone within earshot to join him in “Saving Everything” — no matter how hopeless things may look. Though he learned the poem in the 1950s, Turner only began to understand its true meaning when he spent time on the expedition ship, the Calypso, in the early 80s with Jacques Cousteau (whom he also funded).
As Turner recounts the tale, an all-night discussion about negative environmental trends left Turner so dejected that he asked Cousteau, “Why bother fighting if the outlook is so bleak?” Cousteau reminded him that his media channels gave him a powerful megaphone, and no matter how futile things seemed, it was important to never give up. “Ted, we cannot afford to get discouraged. Even if we know the end is coming for certain, which we do not, what can men of good conscience do but try to keep doing the right thing until the very end?”
It is in Turner’s 90th decade where he is facing his toughest personal challenge. Several years ago, Turner was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, a common, yet woefully under-recognized, often misdiagnosed brain disease that affects about 1.3 million people in the U.S. Tragically, Robin Williams was one of the most prominent people who had been misdiagnosed. While living, he was told he had Parkinson’s disease, but an autopsy revealed he, in fact, had Lewy body dementia. This brain disease causes changes in memory, thinking, movement, and behavior. It also causes a progressive decline in mental abilities, visual hallucinations, and changes in alertness and attention. In 2018, rather than conceal his weakness, Turner invited Ted Koppel and CBS Sunday Morning’s cameras to see him battle his affliction and raise awareness and money for the cause.
At 83, Turner is no longer on the Forbes 400 list. Instead, earlier this year, when Forbes named him one of the “25 most philanthropic billionaires,” it acknowledged, “If not for his $1.4 billion of lifetime giving, the man behind Turner Broadcasting and CNN wouldn’t have fallen off Forbes’ list of the 400 richest Americans in 2021.” He is proud of that feat and continues to relish his myriad awards and accolades that celebrate a life of achievement. Neither humble nor perfect, he still recalls Cousteau as he pushes forward to create a better world for his 14 grandchildren. No matter the odds and the obstacles, he continues to ask anyone within earshot:
Now, who will stand on either hand and keep the bridge with me?