Ted Turner might as well dump his billion dollars in the Zambezi River for all the good it's going to do for needy people around the world.

In what is said to be the largest charitable contribution ever, Mr. Turner, the billionaire founder of CNN, pledged last month to give a billion dollars over the next 10 years (through a foundation he will set up) to the United Nations.While this has the trappings of a once-in-a-lifetime event, Mr. Turner has merely upped the ante in what has become the hottest parlor game amongst members of the very exclusive billionaire's club - mega-philanthropy.

A few months ago, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, donated $200 million to purchase computers and the software to run on them, for public libraries in low-income communities across the country. Mr. Turner was underwhelmed. In his speech to the United Nations, he even mentioned Mr. Gates by name: Match this, rich boy.

If nothing else, these episodes are instructive. For they get at the heart of the fundamental problem for philanthropy today. Philanthropy must learn how to justify itself. And it must do so based on what it is able to accomplish: What are the effects it has and the results it is able to achieve? Does it help people to become self-sufficient? Does it help them to live virtuously?

This may in fact be tougher than it sounds. Philanthropy, as a field, is obsessed with its own good intentions. Good intentions are fine, but they have the side-effect of fogging up one's glasses when it comes to being hard-headed and realistic about what is really being accomplished.

Americans are, of course, extraordinarily generous. They gave approximately $150 billion to charity in 1996. (In comparison, means-tested entitlements in the same year amounted to about $200 billion). No matter how you slice it, that's a lot of money. Much of that giving comes from very wealthy people like Ted Turner.

According to research by the economists Charles Clotfelter and Richard Schmalbeck, people with adjusted gross incomes of $100,000 or more - 3.9 percent of all taxpayers - account for 22.8 percent of all giving, and people with incomes of $1 million or more - a much more select group - account for 5.5 percent of all giving. But nearly 80 percent of giving comes from the 95 percent of people who are not especially wealthy (who have incomes of less than $100,000 a year).

While the wealthy get the lion's share of attention, in our work for the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, we have been impressed by the impact that individuals - often people with modest incomes - are having in distressed communities across the United States.

These are people who direct their time and money into organizations that improve the condition of the needy. They are directly involved in making decisions about which organizations are deserving of their support and what the organizations are using their money for. They think about the aims of their giving and the channels through which it most effectively flows. They value their philanthropy - their giving of both time and money - for what it does for others.

We began to think of these individuals as ''civic entrepreneurs,'' people who view their charitable activities in the same manner as other areas of their lives: e.g., business people applying their finely honed business acumen to their philanthropic activities. Through a conception of ''what works'' based on their own common sense as well as some research and homework, they will be able to identify organizations in their community that are worth supporting. Everyone who gives to charity is able to do this - billionaires too. And if they think that their giving of time and money is important, they will.

Ted Turner is one of the most adroit businessmen of our time. It's indeed perplexing that he has made one of the most haphazard and ill-thought-out gifts of all time. Why has he simply laid down his cards when it comes to philanthropy?

A gift of a billion dollars to a dysfunctional, bureaucratic monstrosity like the United Nations ought to serve as a warning sign for all future givers. It might read something like: ''When you've been dealt a decent hand, don't fold!''

Mr. Turner should sit down and rethink the aims of his philanthropy. He ought to be hard-headed about what he is trying to accomplish. He should put the money in the hands of people who can use it to make a difference. He should apply to his philanthropic endeavors those attributes that have made him one of the richest men in the world.

Imagine what could be accomplished if Mr. Turner gave some of the money to a few pastors in distressed parts of Atlanta. Now that would be worth doing.

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