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Johnny Carson’s Philanthropy Is a Class Act

You could say that Johnny Carson perfected the art of being that most peculiarly American type of creature – the late night talk show host. At the very least, we know that he succeeded in entertaining many millions of viewers in the process. And that’s no small accomplishment.

And now we discover he has done something more: He has contributed over $156 million dollars from his estate to a variety of charitable groups.

As reported recently, the details of Carson’s gift were revealed in a tax return filed by the John W. Carson Foundation with the IRS in May. $35.2 million of the transfer was in cash, with the $121.2 million balance in the form of royalty rights and securities.

Made from a personal trust the comedian founded more than 15 years before his death from emphysema in January of 2005, this gift reportedly makes Carson’s Foundation the best-endowed Hollywood charity by a large margin.

The Envelope Please…

The gift benefits “environmental groups, AIDS charities, schools, children’s aid organizations, and not-for-profits in Nebraska,” Carson’s home state. Specific beneficiaries include Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles ($4 million), The Los Angeles Free Clinic ($100,000), and a Planned Parenthood high school sex education program ($125,000).

But we all benefit from Johnny Carson’s giving.

America’s celebrity culture, combined with its focus on youth, means that many of our highest-profile citizens don’t necessarily come across as particularly highly-evolved human beings. Take three parts good looks, three parts publicity, add a pinch of talent (or talent substitute) plus a generous dollop of take-the-money-and-run and there you are: Pretty sterile ground for philanthropy, one would think. And millions of people worldwide derive their lifestyle cues from celebrities.

Heeeeere’s Johnny

Which is why Mr. Carson’s generosity is so invaluable to fundraisers. He has just provided a solid-gold philanthropic role model to the many millions of folks who loved the man and his comedy. Those people are your prospects. They may or may not know from Leno and Letterman, but they were watching The Tonight Show during the golden age of Carson. And he has just showed them the way to do something great for their world through planned giving.

There’s another angle to the Johnny Carson and his $156 million gift that we should emphasize: He didn’t publicize his philanthropy. He didn’t tell his heirs or lawyers to issue a release saying what a great guy Johnny was to spread his wealth around. Sources had to dig this information out from the IRS (and Johnny’s estate had to tell them).

What this means is that his charity came from the heart, not from the PR Department. And smart fundraisers can turn this to their advantage when they sell their organization’s mission to potential donors. They can encourage prospects to follow their hearts, too, in giving to further the work of their beloved charities. Some of the greatest giving can be done almost anonymously.

We hear again and again how achieving the personal touch can make the decisive difference in closing a gift. Johnny Carson just made our job a little easier.

Good show, Johnny.

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