Sumner Redstone Is Ramping Up Giving on Global Poverty

Delve into the Forbes 400 list and you'll be struck by how many multi-billionaires have not gotten serious about philanthropy. Many of them, to be fair, feel that they are too busy making money to properly give it away — and so have pushed big-time philanthropy off into the future.

Some of these billionaires, though, are quite old and don't have a lot of time left. So the pressure is on to make choices about how to give away their fortune — lest others make those choices after they are gone.

Sumner Redstone is a case in point. Redstone is the entertainment mogul who controls Viacom, CBS, and MTV, among other holdings. At 89, he is still deeply involved in the day-to-day affairs of his business. But Redstone also has a fortune of over $4 billion and needs to get cracking if he wants to make a dent in giving that money away while he is alive.

Redstone has been an aging billionaire for years, but only recently has he made any big gifts. As recently as 2006, as his fortune neared a peak of $9 billion, the Sumner M. Redstone Charitable Foundation had just $389 in assets — although Redstone often made gifts that passed through that foundation. (The foundation still doesn't have a website or visible staff or offer guidelines for grantseekers, so don't call Redstone — he'll call you.)

Redstone made a characteristically brash entry into the philanthropic major leagues in 2007, when he donated $105 million to three non-profit healthcare organizations to fund burn recovery and prostrate cancer research. These gifts partly reflected his own experience of being badly burned in a fire at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. He survived after major surgery Massachusetts General Hospital — which got $35 million of his gift. Redstone also survived prostate cancer in 2004, which explains the $35 million that went to the Cedars-Sinai Prostate Cancer Center in Los Angeles.

Making gifts to one's community, alma mater, or to a personal health cause is often a first step for major donors. Some never go beyond that to fund causes where they have no personal connection.

In the past year or two, though, Redstone has shown that he has wider — and more global — concerns. In 2011, he pledged $1.5 million to the Global Poverty Project, for the organization’s End of Polio campaign, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And just this month he pledged another $650,000 to the group, this time time for its $100 million Global Action Campaign.

It's unclear whether these gifts represent the beginning of much larger giving by Redstone on global poverty. But it wouldn't be surprising if that were the case. Global poverty and health is an attractive philanthropic area for the super, super rich. While it's not easy to usefully give away a few billion dollars to universities and healthcare centers, that kind of big money is easily spent when addressing the massive needs of the developing world.

The other appeal of giving in this area is that it is cost effective; money spent bettering the human condition in poor countries goes a lot further than money spent in rich countries. Such efficiency and leverage can be very appealing to hard-nosed businessmen like Sumner Redstone who have spent their lives focused on the bottom line.

Finally, it's hard to underestimate Bill Gates' influence in shaping the giving priorities of other billionaires. Gates is widely regarded for his intelligence and strategic savvy (not to mention his unparalelled wealth). If the world's second-largest philanthropist is betting big on making progress on global poverty and health, this is probably an area where money can be well spent.

It's no surprise that Sumner Redstone's foray in global poverty giving began with a donation to a Gates-backed organization. The two men have known each for a long time — meeting regularly at Herb Allen's media mogul retreats in Sun Valley — and no doubt Gates has used these ties to push his favorite cause.