June 29 (Bloomberg) -- “When you wake up, you’re almost afraid to pick up the paper, turn on the news or go online,” says Jonathan Tisch, co-chairman of the board of Loews Corp. and chief executive officer of Loews Hotels. “Your head spins, the challenges are so enormous.”
We’re facing, he says, “economic collapse, looming environmental disaster, crumbling infrastructure, dysfunctional health and educational systems, and festering international tensions.”
Yet Tisch says there are many reasons for optimism, which he explains in a new book, “Citizen You: Doing Your Part to Change the World.”
Scion of a public-spirited and philanthropic family -- he gave his alma mater, Tufts University, $40 million in 2006 to fund the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.
We spoke over lunch at Bloomberg’s New York world headquarters.
Lundborg: What has changed?
Tisch: In my time, we thought many of the resources were infinite, that we’d always have clean air and running water for everybody.
My sense is that people who are growing up now, the millennials, know there are challenges and want to do something about them. This generation understands its responsibilities and is thinking about social change in a new way.
The Next Level
Lundborg: You say old-style charities, such as soup kitchens, might have addressed the symptoms, but didn’t get at the root cause.
Tisch: Volunteering is an admirable act, and people should keep doing it, but let’s take it to the next level.
Citizen activists look in the mirror, see what they’re really good at and then apply their talents to solving social problems. It’s skills-based volunteering.
Lundborg: How do you choose your own philanthropic activities?
Tisch: I support organizations that help people do better for themselves and the community. A lot of it is based on education.
I also have another passion, which is to use the travel and tourism industry for job-creation and economic development.
Lundborg: What’s your first recollection of your family’s public-spiritedness?
Tisch: We were shown that caring about others is important. It wasn’t a discussion around the table; it was just the way my family went about its business and we learned by example.
The night before Thanksgiving, for example, my parents would put on an event for people in wheelchairs, for people with physical handicaps, for the poorer members of our community. And that went on for a good 25 years.
Lundborg: Is the business climate changing to incorporate a social conscience?
Tisch: Of course you need to focus on the bottom line, but enlightened CEOs realize that you also have a responsibility to your co-workers, your consumers and your community.
Lundborg: Has Wall Street compensation distorted the social fabric, attracting talent away from other occupations?
Tisch: Certain people were being compensated in ways that society wasn’t used to in terms of base salary and bonuses, but those salaries are also market-driven. If we overregulate, we’ll just drive people to other countries.
I do worry we’re not getting the kinds of people in government that we need, where it’s a compensation issue, or privacy, or the political process of having to go with your hand out and ask for money all the time.
Lundborg: How does Tufts train social activists?
Tisch: You can’t get a degree at Tisch College. It serves as an amplifier for what your focus is. If you’re an engineer, you can take courses on understanding how to move a river in Africa to bring hydroelectric power to a community. You learn how to be a citizen dentist or a citizen veterinarian.
Of all the philanthropy I’ve been involved in, this has been the most rewarding gift. It’s been where this book evolved.
Lundborg: What are some of the new kinds of socially conscious profit-making enterprises?
Tisch: There’s a group called New Profit, which was started by a Tufts grad, Vanessa Kirsch. They’ve raised millions of dollars to help nonprofits learn to sell a product or a service and make money to reinvest in their organization.
There’s also Jacqueline Novogratz’s Acumen Fund to help organizations that provide aid to the world’s poorest people.
Lundborg: What’s your favorite example of someone who went out and changed the world?
Tisch: Scott Harrison was a nightclub promoter before he started to go as a photographer on Mercy Ship voyages. They send floating hospitals to serve poor people in the developing world.
After figuring out where he could do the most good, he started charity: water. So far, he’s raised $20 million, built 2,000 wells and more than a million people have already been helped.
That’s a great story.
To buy “Citizen You: Doing Your Part to Change the World” in North America, click here. For more information: http://www.citizenyou.org. Watch Jonathan Tisch’s interview program, “Beyond the Boardroom,” Fridays at 9 p.m. on Bloomberg TV.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
To contact the reporter on this story: Zinta Lundborg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.