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Paul Newman: A Tribute to the Father of Consumer Philanthropy

September 28, 2008

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In December, he paid tribute to screen legend, businessman, and philanthropist Paul Newman.)

Paul_newman1Paul Newman passed away on Friday at the age of 83. The nation and the world are poorer in many ways. Others more qualified than I will pay appropriate tribute to his remarkable contributions as one of the 20th century's most enduring and beloved actors. To me, Newman's contributions to philanthropy warrant equal attention. Without any grand plan, over the last twenty-eight years and in the third act of his career, he proved that the generosity of Americans does not stop when they go shopping. Indeed, given a choice between a high-quality product and a high-quality product coupled with a chance to do good, Americans, as Newman demonstrated, are inclined to choose the latter. Newman's Own, the company he and his Westport neighbor A.E. Hotchner founded more than twenty-five years ago, pioneered and remains a leader in what I have dubbed "consumer philanthropy."

The story of Newman's Own begins just before Christmas 1980, when Hotchner and Newman came up with the idea. For years, they had filled old wine bottles with Paul's homemade salad dressing and presented them as holiday gifts to friends. That year, as a joke, they stocked the shelves of a local gourmet shop with their dressing. As they recounted years later in their book Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good (Doubleday, 2003), when the shop quickly sold all the bottles, they realized it was time to get "out of the basement and onto the shelf."

The rest, as they say, is history. Popcorn, lemonade, pretzels, pasta sauce, cookies, ice cream, and marinades -- all approved by Paul Newman's exacting taste buds -- soon found their way into grocery stores across the country. Subsequently, Newman's Own became the first company to place products with only all-natural ingredients in supermarkets. By the end of the 1990s, Newman's original salad dressing had annual retail sales of $33.5 million, becoming the eighth-biggest seller in the salad dressing market, and Newman's Own products had earned more than all of Newman's films combined. Tongue firmly in cheek, he once confessed to David Letterman that it was humiliating. We should all be so humiliated. By 2008, the Newman's Own Foundation, the organization he and Hotch created to funnel the proceeds from their growing food products empire to charity, had given more than $250 million to worthy causes.

Those profits were donated to thousands of nonprofit organizations in the United States and around the globe. Grantseekers were asked to submit a simple one-page summary of their project and a proposal, and grants were awarded every year by the end of December. Along the way, Newman learned the old precept that it takes a lot of time to give away money wisely.

Off screen, Newman was an unassuming presence. He once confessed at a benefit for his beloved Hole in the Wall Gang Camp that he was not comfortable asking others for money. And he only reluctantly allowed his face to appear on the labels of Newman's Own products. When the idea was first proposed for his oil and vinegar salad dressing, he responded "Not a chance in hell," saying he was bothered by what he called "noisy philanthropy." It was only after a former food industry executive joined Newman's Own to build the "business" that the product packaging begin to include more prominent mention of the fact that all the profits were donated to charity.

While Newman's name did not generally appear on lists of the most generous Americans, his contributions far exceeded the actual dollar amounts the Newman's Own Foundation gives away each year. In the mid-1990s, seeking to raise the bar and quality of charitable giving on the part of Fortune 500 companies, he helped found the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy. And, of course, his legacy lives on every time a consumer purchases a product that gives consumers the chance to do good.

Paul Newman always kept his brilliant blue eyes on the prize -- a better world for all -- and understood that his most lasting contribution could be found in the work of the organizations the Newman's Own Foundation supported. For that, we owe him our gratitude.

-- Michael Seltzer

Comments

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This tribute focuses on what Newman will be most remembered for 50 years from now. Thanks!

In Newman's own words, a message for us all:

"I wanted, I think, to acknowledge Luck: the chance of it, the benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others; made especially savage for children because they may not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it."

Thank you both for your tributes to Paul Newman

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