Why This Big Time Hollywood Exec Became A Full-Time Philanthropist

Former 20th Century Fox International President Scott Neeson oversaw the release and marketing of some of Hollywood's most successful films including Titanic and Braveheart. Neeson spent some 26 years in the industry. Born in Scotland and raised in Australia, Neeson was a restless student who struggled to hold down a job. He eventually got a job at Fox and climbed the ranks to become managing director of the distribution arm at Twentieth Century Fox-Australia in 1986. Later, he moved to Los Angeles. 

Why am I telling you all of this?

Well, when Neeson finished his stint at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles and was about to start at Sony Pictures, he took a trip to Cambodia. In Phnom Penh, he asked a local friend to take him to the poorest areas of the region, where they visited an 18-acre garbage dump with over 1,000 children living and working there. At the site, women and children were rummaging through burning garbage piles for scraps they could sell for money. Neeson was so moved that when he met one 10-year-old girl, he set her family up in a rental home and gave them money and rice to eat.

These experiences led Neeson to give up a $1 million salary, move to Cambodia, establish the Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF), and commit to philanthropy full-time. CCF is multi-tiered, with 65 interrelated projects in areas such as education, child care, community outreach and more. Last year, it spent $8.8 million and helped around 2,400 children. Nearly 80 participants have graduated from high school and are now enrolled in college.

The fund relies on outside donations by companies such as Velcro Industries and Credit Suisse. Neeson has also received support from Hollywood. Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone has given the fund at least $4 million, and director Roland Emmerich and actress Heather Graham, who sits on the board of directors of CCF, have also given support.

Neeson commuted between Hollywood and Cambodia for a year before finally moving to Cambodia full-time. Last year, Neeson talked about his approaches to philanthropy and fielded questions on Reddit. Neeson talks about having almost no experience in philanthropy before founding Cambodian Children's Fund: "I had no nonprofit experience. With due respect to the nonprofits, I think there's an advantage because I had a corporate mentality. I also had a naïve passion about how to get these kids educated. In retrospect, it was a good thing to come in with no preconceptions and a textbook on how to run a nonprofit. The corporate mentality has definitely helped keep us efficient and keep costs down."

On thing that stands out from Neeson's Reddit posts, though, is his conviction that spreading resources around widely is the best way to help solve some of Cambodia's problems. He didn't just want to tackle one issue like healthcare: "I'm a firm believer that you don't go across a massive area and do one thing. You take a community and provide sufficient programs for people to survive and work their way to independence. If a kid is going to stop picking garbage to go to school, you have to help the parents, grandparents and have the community help the community."