By ANN DONAHUE
Who says Michael Eisner is cheap?
The chairman and chief executive of Walt Disney Co., who is often considered Hollywood's most cost-conscious executive, entered the world of philanthropy in a big way earlier this month when the 3-year-old Eisner Foundation made a $6 million grant to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
The donation almost triples the amount of money given out last year.
The Eisner Foundation, based in Beverly Hills, was established in 1996. One year later, Eisner and his wife Jane contributed 1 million shares of Disney common stock. Today, the foundation is valued at about $144 million.
Through a Disney spokeswoman, Eisner declined a request for comment.
Foundation Executive Director Laura Hobart declined to give precise dollar amounts on how much money has been spent. But it's going out rather slowly. The Foundation Center in New York, a non-profit organization that tracks the giving habits of charitable organizations, said the foundation doled out $2.1 million in 1998.
Hobart said most of the donations were under $100,000, as part of the focus on making an impact on a wide variety of grassroots efforts.
The bite-sized donation approach is not uncommon for foundations that are just starting their philanthropic efforts, according to Barbara Luria Leopold, a faculty coordinator at the Center for the Study of Philanthropy at the City University of New York.
"You need to get the lay of the land and figure out what exactly your foundation is going to focus on," she said. "There's always the dynamic of giving to a favorite cause versus giving to the neediest one."
At first, the foundation's focus was on children's organizations in Los Angeles and Orange counties, including All Kinds of Minds, a non-profit institute that studies ways to improve the techniques used to teach children with learning disabilities.
In addition, money has been given to Big Sisters of Los Angeles and Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, an organization in Sherman Oaks that provides musical instruments to needy children.
But the foundation has made forays into health care, as well. A total of $100,000 has been donated to the Los Angeles Free Clinic and supports the pediatric dental program, which serves 2,450 children a year.
In a recent statement, Jane Eisner cited the "devotion" of Cedars-Sinai staff as a major reason for giving the grant to an organization outside of the foundation's usual scope of children's charities.
"The cardiovascular research programs were selected because of the special skills, experience and devotion of the doctor/scientists at Cedars, and because of the vital need for a non-invasive, economical and effective early detection test," Jane Eisner said.
Another possible explanation: Michael Eisner underwent a successful quadruple bypass procedure at Cedars-Sinai several years ago.
The Eisner Foundation operates alongside a separate one, the Eisner Family Fund, Hobart said. "They've had a foundation going back for a generation, and this is (Michael Eisner's) new take on it," she said.
According to the most recent numbers available by the Foundation Center, the Eisner Family Fund was established in 1988 and is based in New York. In 1997, it had assets of $18 million. That same year, the fund made grants totaling more than $540,000. Eisner is a trustee of the Family Fund.
The general rule is that established foundations are required to give out 5 percent of their fair market value each year in grants.
There are numerous tax benefits that come from these kinds of foundations. Individuals can deduct cash contributions to a private foundation of up to 30 percent of the donor's adjusted gross income. In addition, all contributions to a private foundation given in a will are fully deductible for estate tax purposes.
The money given to Cedars-Sinai will support a five-year research program that focuses on the early prevention and detection of cardiovascular disease. Negotiations between Cedars-Sinai and the Eisners have been going on for several months, officials said, and further donations to the hospital are expected from the foundation in the future.
"The Eisners have been patients at Cedars for several years, and they saw the need for this based on their own experience," Hobart said.
The first project to be funded by the grant, slated to receive $2 million, is a five-year study led by Dr. Daniel S. Berman, director of the hospital's Heart Watch Program, which focuses on the early detection of coronary artery disease.
Using the grant money, Berman and his research associates will study the use of an electron beam to determine how much plaque has built up in coronary artery vessels. The amount of plaque in arteries correlates to the risk of heart disease.
"You can actually see the plaque in your arteries (with the electron beam)," Berman said. "You can talk to people, tell them they fit a profile that shows they are likely to be coronary disease patients. But when they see it in their own arteries, they see their own mortality. It becomes a milestone in their life because coronary disease is treatable if it is caught early."
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