Interview with Alan Shawn Feinstein 7/18/2011
- AS - Alexander “Sasha” Sidorkin, Dean, FSEHD
- ASF - Alan Shawn Feinstein
AS: Mr. Feinstein, what kinds of experiences made you who you are?
ASF: I went to college, became a teacher. I had met my wife in Thailand ….I had written three books in my travels to other countries, children's tales, and I presented one to the King of Thailand - had a private audience. I didn't appreciate the fact at that time, but we related to each other. The King was a good man. The Thai public idolized him.
When I came back, my children's books just sold moderately, didn't make any money. But I had an idea for a financial newsletter. I wrote a financial guide - it became very successful. I was writing a little financial column for my local newspaper, and I was involved in investing at the time. Somehow, some way, a fellow in India picked it up and he liked my writing. He got my column in newspapers throughout the world. I appeared in newspapers in Japan, Philippians, in Sweden, in Russia, Egypt. I don't know how he did it, he traveled around the world. I never met this man, but that gave me a lot of credibility. With my background as an international financial columnist, I was able to place advertisements for my financial guide with a free subscription to my newsletter. That was at a time when the cost of newspaper advertising was low and you could get swaps with magazines when they had extra pages. Between that and mailing lists - I developed over 300,000 readers of a monthly newsletter I had started.
I don't know where I got an idea to sell things to my readers. News writers had nothing to do with it at the time. My newsletter was about collectibles, stamps, coins, autographs, presidential autographs, because my readers had a lot of faith in me and my newsletter. Today you are barraged with so many offers newsletter writes make, but it was unusual back then.
I began making a good deal of money and then somehow came up with another idea. I was going to do something that no one else was doing at that time: offer a full, one-year money back guarantee on anything anyone bought from me. They could return it any time with no questions asked and at least to my knowledge there had never been a guarantee like that before. And I began getting unusual offers from overseas. One of my contacts was a man who had tremendous overseas connections in many countries so I would hear about these great finds: foreign currency or a special stamp could be made featuring a face on Mars, which at that time became very popular when NASA took that picture. Through my contact I could have those stamps made and we sold an awful lot of them. In fact it even came to a position that I would have to tell my readers “listen I have something for you - I can't tell you what it is because if I let news out of it publically, it will all be grabbed up by dealers, but I'll tell you what I'll do, you send me a post dated check, anywhere from $100 - $1,000 -in those days I will take your check and I will hold on to it and as soon as I get your check I'll send you private news what I have for you and for any reason you're not absolutely delighted, just let me know within the next 30 days, and I'll return your check.” People sent me millions of dollars. I either build up a lot of trust with these people or it was a combination of trust and the uniqueness of it - this is something no one had ever been done before.
AS: How did you become a philanthropist?
ASF: About 20 years ago, it came to me - what am I going to do with all this money? Are my kids going to love me any more if I leave them 20 million, 1 million dollars, 2 million dollars? So I did the two things that I wanted to do most of all was be able to go to children and tell them they could be able to make a difference in the world. I told people they can help feed the hungry by putting a million dollars out there every year. To any donations that you make to help feed your hungry neighbors we are going to add more. This had great appeal; particularly to religious organizations, churches and synagogues. There are hundreds of anti hunger agencies, an awful lot of churches, and many jewfish agencies. It became very popular with Jewish non-profits. It was also popular with churches, because my name is Jewish and if one Jew can help non-Jews, that opens up good Christian hearts. So that campaign has helped to raise over 1.5 billion close to 2 billion dollars in the past 17 years. The school program, to me, is even more interesting. I'll show you why…
AS: Why did you choose those two priorities - hunger and children?
ASF: I chose children because I love them. Particularly when I saw I could make a difference in them. I could speak to children and tell them you have a special power inside you, it's a wonderful power; you have the power to make people smile by doing good deeds. Nobody can force you to use it but nobody can take it away from you, you can use it or you can waste it. Don't waste it. Every time you put a smile on someone's face you make the world a better place and that makes you a better person. So one of the things I did was set up scholarships at colleges for our junior scholars with the understanding that our Jr. Scholars would get extra consideration for scholarship money. And this related to kids and to my surprise it even related to 3 and 4 year olds. I didn't think it would work at that age, but I had a couple of pre-schoolers who nagged me to be in the program and I reluctantly took them.
I receive newsletters about kids are doing good deeds, raising money to feed the hungry. I've got over 10,000 good deeds that kids send me that they do. PBS promised that once I start my PBS show, once I no longer do it, they will run this offer for at least 5 years and the parents are so grateful. The kids are running around doing good deeds, and the kids get Jr. Scholar card that allows freed admission to so many places, naturally saves parents a lot of money.
AS: How do you design these programs? Its one thing to have an idea and another thing to make a program that people participate in.
ASF: The director here was the former assistant commissioner of education in RI. A very good man, he'd go to schools and we'd bring them grade-level adjusted journals in which they could record their good deeds. The former commissioner, Troy Earhart, for lack of a better term, was loaned to me by Hasbro where he was a consultant after he retired as the Commissioner, and he gave me some great ideas. We probably spent a lot of money on agencies, people who came and wanted money for their projects and we found out that really worked.
PHONE RINGS, ASF ANSWERS.
ASF: This was Roy, the owner of the carousel. We offer free carousel rides and free popcorn and free face painting to junior scholars. I give Roy some money, to offset the expenses, but so many kids have been coming there, 500 - 600 a week. He's giving out 600 bags of popcorn a week and he asked me would I please make it a somewhat smaller bag of popcorn. He tells me the parents are so grateful because the kids run around doing good deeds, they're Feinstein Junior Scholars. Parents also grateful for what's on the back of the card because a lot of parents are really stressed economically. The value of the discount cards their kids get for being the Junior Scholars can be up to $200. Many vendors cooperate and parents and kids can go to many places for free. I had 70,000 of these cards made up for this year - I have 240 cards left. The worry that I do have is that some of these places might get so much more traffic than they'd expect that they might run out of supplies. Every year I have to change the card accordingly but generally it's worked out fairly easy because they get so much traffic that the aggravation from so much traffic is worth it to them. The publicity they get is worth it for the most part.
AS: Who came up with the card idea?
ASF: That's my idea.
AS: I'm just curious because you've been a business man and then became a philanthropist - how do you compare those two parts of your life? Is it the same kind of thinking that you apply? Which one is more fun?
ASF: The kids to me are the most enjoyable thing of all. That's what motivated me. But I enjoyed success in the business world: the trust that people had in me, people who never met me, never knew me, just the way I wrote plus my resume. I've been in Who's Who in America for so long I don't even know if I'm in it anymore because I don't bother looking. I have many honorary degrees; I've got the presidential medal from Rhode Island College and from Brown University. I have several schools and colleges named for me, I've had schools name for my mother and father and my grandson. Those schools are no dearer to me than the other 116 Feinstein leadership schools.
AS: This sounds like a great program, but let me ask you about our program. In 1996 you gave our School one million dollars to establish the community service requirement - what were you hoping to accomplish? Why do you think future teachers should go through service learning - what is the rationale?
ASF: I was very friendly with your former president, John Nazarian. the idea was we would give each college that promised to make community service a requisite for graduation one million dollars and Rhode Island College was one of them. I gave1 million when the school of education was named after me, I got an honorary degree.
I think service learning as a combination of service and learning, is of great importance. I would have been a better person if I had service learning in my education, if I had learned earlier that reaching out to help others makes a difference in the world. It doesn't matter if you're a religious person or not. If you're not religious, you're doing something good for other people. Half of the parochial schools in the state are Feinstein leadership schools. I could never envision that when I was growing up in a mixed Jewish and Catholic community, that someday there would be 15,000 youngsters each year that were Feinstein junior scholars in Catholics parochial schools. Of course there is nothing in what I teach that is contrary to their values. I teach that reaching out to other people is a wonderful thing to do.
I think if schools and teachers learn that this is part of their education they're passing on something that is not only going to help the people in need, but it will show their students if they can make a real positive difference in the world, outside of the money they may be able to make for their family, because when you come down to it, at the end of the day, the only thing that will make a difference is what we've done while we were here to help other people. We take that with us for all eternity and nothing else. And this resonates with kids:
a) They can make a positive difference, they are not too young, they're not nobodies. They put a smile on somebody's face, that they are special, and
b) Eternity is an awful long time.
These ideas resonate with the kids and the teachers.
AS: We prepare about 300 teachers per year. It's been already 10 years since the Service Learning program is in place, which means at least 3000 future teachers went through it. Who knows, maybe it will exist 100 more years. That's a lot of teachers going through. If you could gather all of them together - past and future - what would be one of the things you'd tell them?
ASF: I don't think I'd tell them anything. I'd think I'd ask them “are you teaching your youngsters that they can make a difference in the lives of others by doing good for other people?” I'd ask them if they are putting this to use, I'd ask them if they remember the days when they were Feinstein service learning participants? How many of these teachers are putting the community service memories to work in their teaching?
I get requests from schools outside the state to be Feinstein Leadership Schools, to be in the program. We have 3 or 4 but I do not encourage them; my hands are full with the schools here in RI. When you stop and figure I've been doing this for very close to 20 years, I've devoted most of my energy to this, we have the impacted on most of the people in RI. It will be very difficult for me to walk up to any family gathering anywhere and not to be recognized. After all, if we have 40,000 Feinstein Junior Scholars each year and it's been over 20 years and there's 10-15% turnover, you're talking about 150,000, maybe more, that I've directly impacted and their families, and you add that up and there are 1 million people in RI that - half of them at least have been directly affected.
That fellow who called - Chris Fay , represents the Faith Walk for Charity - that's when religious leaders of all faiths get together, join arms, and go on a walk to raise funds to help the needy in one way or another. And as you probably heard I am a sponsor. I've been sponsoring them for several years. I like the idea of people walking arm-in-arm, I like the fact that I can walk with a church and I can go up and speak at that church, I don't talk about religion; I talk about children doing good. They are very responsive.
AS: You've been successful as a philanthropist, what do you think is going to happen to American philanthropy? Is it going to change, stay the same, is it going to be more important, less important in the future - what is your prediction?
ASF: I think that may have a lot to do with kids that I speak to. What are they going to be in the future? If they're going to continue to be community minded, if they're going to continue to care for the values they have now, they will contribute to the causes that I contribute to. It's unfortunate that some Republicans have a strangle hold on this economy. I'm independent, but the fact is that we are not taxing the rich is detrimental to this country. We need those taxes and the rich don't need that money because they aren't putting it to work, they're not creating jobs with that extra money, they're just buying more fancy things with it. You know who's making money today - the auctioneer, the auction houses. I bought a Babe Ruth contract, most important sports contract in the world, I paid $95,000 for it and people thought I was crazy to pay that much at auction. When the Red Sox won the World Series three or four years ago, I put it back on auction and sold it for 10 times as much $995,000 and all that money went to feed the hungry. What I am saying is that people that have money are spending fortunes on yachts and planes and auctions. I bought a Ted Williams first contract several years ago, and 3-4 years later, I sold it for 3 times what I paid for it. These rich people with the tax cuts that Bush engineered, are not doing America any good, they're just sitting on this money and spending it on themselves.
AS: Are you optimistic about the future - about the American project? Is it going to be ok?
ASF: I'm not optimistic about America's leadership in the world quite frankly. I think China is going to be the next great power, I think Russia is tremendous power and I don't know much about Russia except there's been a great deal of wealth in Russia in the past few years, but unfortunately a lot of it is concentrated in the hands of a few billionaires - that's the problem. But America can't go on being the master of the world. We can't go on fighting wars, we can't do it, we don't have the resources anymore, we don't have the power - our power is being drained.
AS: You had interest in antiques and collectibles of different kinds and I'm curious how does it inform your understanding of American culture, American history?
ASF: My interest in collectibles was really because it represented something that appealed to a certain segment of a population and I realized that some of these things had a potential to grow in value. Particularly with this large a readership as I had that would add a lot more buying power to the field with the limited amount there were of whatever item I chose to sell.
AS: But don't you just like the stuff, the cards, the stamps - is it something that you just like to have or to deal with or not? Are you a collector yourself?
ASF: Not really. If I helped create a collectible, I like to see a finished product but as a collector myself, no. Stamp collecting for example, used to be such a big field, but now it's close to dead. There is no new generation of stamp buyers. The novelty items like I came up with, yes there were buyers. If I was talking about the moon, Mars and the astronauts and a stamp came out from another country about the astronauts or about the satellite, outside of the ordinary collector base, there were my 300,00 people.
AS: Let me ask you one more question. I know you don't like to talk about your childhood, but could you tell me a story of your first memory of when you wanted to help people came to you? What's the first that you remember that you said you wanted to help somebody?
ASF: I never thought of it that way, I always gravitated towards taking kids out for ice cream. There was, in the early 20's, a national story about a girl who was afflicted in some way and I tried to set up a fund for her. Quite frankly, I don't remember too much going way back. I remember reading Dostoevsky. I also read Solzhenitsyn about the Gulag, and I was greatly impressed.
When it comes to the Faith Walk For Charity, people gathering together to help the needy - this to me is one of the greatnesses of America, that it's such a melting pot.