November 10, 2010
For the love of Israel, health care and ‘Power Rangers’
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
Saban’s assistant enters to tell him his next meeting is waiting in the other conference room.
“I guess you’re going to raise money for this,” he concludes. “I will contribute the last $150,000.”
For the majority of Los Angeles’ Jewish philanthropists and fundraisers, odds are that they either know Saban or have been the recipient of his generosity. He is the chairman and part owner of Univision, the nation’s largest Spanish-language media company. He’s also one of the largest individual donors to the Democratic party. According to the Federal Election Commission, Saban has donated at least $13 million to Democrats since 1998. But he is probably still best-known as the man who brought the “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” to the United States from Japan. In 2001, Saban sold the franchise to Disney for $5.3 billion under the banner sale of Fox Family Worldwide, a company he co-owned with Rupert Murdoch. Last May, Saban Brands bought the “Power Rangers” back from Disney for an undisclosed sum, and the company is currently in the process of repackaging the brand for an international relaunch. According to Forbes, Saban’s personal fortune is estimated at $3.3 billion.
But the Saban name also has become synonymous with serious, focused philanthropy. He and his wife, Cheryl, to whom he has been married for 23 years, are among Los Angeles’ most high-profile givers, and they approach their philanthropy as meticulously as they would a business. The Sabans give primarily in two categories: Israel, which is Haim’s passion, and health care, which is Cheryl’s. Their philanthropy is motivated in no small measure by goodwill, but it also is driven by an overarching worldview in which Israel is central. For Saban, Israel’s sustained secure existence and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship are paramount, and toward that end he has cast himself among Israel’s staunchest advocates and fiercest protectors.
Saban’s friends joke that if AIPAC is the most important organization affecting the U.S.-Israel relationship, Saban may be the most important individual advocate: “He’s the prince of the Jewish people,” said Shai Waxman Abramson, speaking from her home on Moshav Neve Ilan, outside Jerusalem. She is the daughter of Los Angeles Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, and she helped to grow the Saban Family Foundation, which was established in 1999. Since 1988, the Sabans have given $16 million to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF), making them the largest donors to the organization in the United States; in 2002, they donated $13 million to establish the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.; and through AIPAC, they endow the Saban Leadership Seminar, a twice-a-year educational and advocacy program aimed at college students. (Full disclosure: This writer attended the winter segment of that program in 2002.)
Their generosity to medical institutions is equally ambitious: In 2003, the Sabans’ $40 million established The Saban Research Institute at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles; in 2008, they gave $10 million to the Los Angeles Free Clinic, now renamed the Saban Free Clinic; another $5.2 million went to the Soroka University Medical Center in Be’er Sheva.
There is a third category, which Saban approaches with considerably less zeal, and which he says includes dozens of smaller annual gifts, ranging in size from $5,000 to $100,000. The Jewish Federation, for instance, falls into this category. Sometimes, the Sabans break their own rules: They provided the $5 million anchor gift to Temple of the Arts for the preservation and restoration of the Fox Wilshire Theatre, a historic art deco building on Wilshire Boulevard (since renamed the Saban Theatre), and another $10 million in honor of their close friends Bill and Hillary Clinton, to Clinton’s Presidential Library and Foundation.
This focused giving, however, has led to criticism that Saban does not give enough to established Jewish organizations — that he prefers to support causes that bear his name rather than support community institutions. Some call this selfish; others call it smart philanthropy: Waxman Abramson, who served as the Saban Family Foundation’s project manager from 2002 until 2005, said, “He wants to have as much impact as possible, and that’s all about targeted philanthropy. A smart philanthropist stays within their focus.”
Even when it comes to giving, Saban has trouble shedding his business skin. “I look at philanthropy from an ROI point of view — return on investment. So if we build a research center, a children’s hospital, it’s not exactly ‘our’ cause. If we funded the Free Clinic so people who don’t have health care can get health care, it’s not exactly ‘our’ cause,” he said a bit defensively.
“We have given a lot more to third-party causes than so-called ‘our own.’ Yes, we have a center in Washington, and, no, we don’t give a lot of money to classic Jewish organizations like The Federation because we can’t see the return on investment. We don’t know where the money is going.”
Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said he is neither offended nor disappointed at hearing this. “Haim Saban is challenging The Federation to do more focused, strategic work, and I applaud him for it,” Sanderson said. “Haim’s concern is a valid concern, and it’s my No. 1 responsibility to address it.”