Scott Neeson: Why I Traded My Yacht and L.A. Mansion to Help Starving Cambodian Children
“I had a really terrific life in Los Angeles. I had a beautiful home in Brentwood Hills, I had some really good friends and some wonderful relations. My favorite toy was a boat in the harbor. My life was what a lot of people would consider the American dream.”
Do you miss anything about your lifestyle from before?
“I miss a lot about my Los Angeles lifestyle. Many people tend to think I should say I miss nothing, that this is the spiritual life and this is what I was meant to do. That’s basically bullshit because we’re all flesh and blood. I’d rather spend my weekend out on a boat in Catalina with friends than I would on a garbage dump looking for a lost child or an abused mother. I’d rather be out on a Friday night date with someone special and I’d rather have the safety and infrastructure of 911 to call in emergencies.
What I don’t have is any regrets. The biggest fear I have is never having found myself in Cambodia and instead continuing my life in L.A. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but it was a conscious sacrifice to actually come here. It wasn’t a calling. It wasn’t a religious moment. It was simply a conscious decision that I would be giving up a lot of material things in order to change my life and the outcome of my life.”
Describe the moment you wanted to give up the life in Hollywood to help these children?
“There was the first time I stepped on the now-closed garbage dump in 2003. I had always harbored a number of prejudices against charities, especially international charities. The main conception being that you don’t know where your money is going because you donate to someplace in Delaware, and by the time it filters through various bureaucracies, you really don’t know how much is hitting the ground. I also felt it wasn’t my problem and the problem of poverty is so much more vast than the money I could provide.
However, those things are gone out the window the moment that you’re standing on this garbage dump with 1,500 children, and there are no aid organizations, no NGOs and no law enforcement. You sure know where your money is going now. It’s your problem or it’s nobody’s problem.
I could make a difference right there and then and that’s what hooked me initially. For $40 a month, I could take two children and their families off of the garbage dump, into a home, into schools and provide stability. It was that exercise of being hands on that offered a sense of pride, but also shame because of how little it took to change their lives so dramatically. I realized making a change wasn’t just possible, but it was an obligation.
When I’d left the garbage dump, I promised myself a 12-month period in which I wouldn’t do anything drastic. Having come from Hollywood and seeing some of the grandest mid-life crises of the century, I wanted to make sure my 26 years in the business weren’t thrown away on some sort of whim.
Almost 12 months to the day, I was in the region but still working in Hollywood. I arrived on the garbage dump and one of the elderly ladies seized upon me and took me to where there were some very sick children, critically ill with typhoid. You can’t call your executive assistant for help. You can’t call studio services to fix a problem. It was very stressful.
At that very moment, my cellphone rang and my office in L.A. patched me through to an actor of the day with his agent. The two were very angry because their private plane, which was sitting on the tarmac, was fit out with the wrong amenities and there was no way the actor was going to get on the plane. There was a real indignation. His words at that particular moment were, “Scott, my life wasn’t meant to be this difficult.” I can’t imagine to this day a greater contrast.
For a person looking for a validation of changing your life, it doesn’t come much more profound. It was that moment where there’s a message from somewhere that what I was doing was right. It was both so absurd and so extreme that it gave a lot of energy to my pursuit. It was a huge validation; I wish I could thank the actor.”
What business strategies or skills do you use from your days as an executive growing your charity?
“I’m often accused of running CCF like a corporation. It took me several years before I realized that it wasn’t meant to be a compliment. We have basic corporate practices where people are accountable for their work, they’re empowered and they need to understand what their role is in the greater mission. There are cost controls and efficiencies. We have a very distinct client base that we deal with, and that’s very vulnerable children. The internal function of the organization is very much like a corporate infrastructure. Externally, it’s all about the children and their families.
There’s no doubt that we wouldn’t have thrived had we followed a traditional nonprofit model.”
What has been your greatest challenge with your charity?
“The issue we’re faced with most of all is that Cambodian Children’s Fund doesn’t have a single mission. It’s not like we’re taking water from the ground to help those in Africa. We’re not searching for a cure for cancer. Our whole model is based on a vast number of interrelated services and programs. They’re as diverse as the granny program, healthcare and refinancing bad loans that run as high as 10 percent a month. The two pillars are education and leadership, because that’s what will lead to the generational change needed here. However, you can’t take a child from a family and expect that child to succeed. You can’t expect a child to succeed if their siblings and parents are going hungry. You have to start at the most fundamental levels. You have to help the whole family to help the child.
That means we have a model that doesn’t fit in with the majority of foundations and aid givers. It also means that our marketing message is much more complex. Getting that message through is very difficult.
The other greatest challenge is that as a founder, I’d normally be located in the funding country rather than the program country. I would be fundraising for ten months and then spending two months in the field. I do that the other way around. I really feel that the programs are best served if I’m based here in Cambodia. It’s a funding challenge. It gives us an arguably better program on the ground but we have greater challenges on the fundraising side because I’m not based in the donor rich countries.”
For those immersed in the stereotypically superficial culture that we have in L.A., what should we be focused on to gain a more worldly view?
“There isn’t any single point of focus. The only way I managed to shatter the superficial lifestyle I cherished was to come and see it all for myself. It’s hard to do that when you are seeing it on television or hearing about it in words.
I would implore people to consider their legacy. Not so much what they leave behind, whether it’s statues or their job titles. It’s inevitable that one day we’ll be on our deathbeds. What do you want to have accomplished at that point? I was motivated largely by this fear that I’d be on my deathbed and think, “if only I had tried this.” When you’re 60 or 70 years old, you will evaluate yourself and you will look at your life. When you do that evaluation, will you base it on what you’ve accomplished or what you regret not accomplishing? Unfortunately, we generally do that when it’s too late.
That’s the closest I can get to giving advice. I’m not the best of role models because it took a lot to shake me out of my superficial view.”
For those entrepreneurs focused on charitable startups, what kind of advice can you give for successfully launching their organizations?
“It depends. Are you focused on helping a particular cause or a mission? If you are focused on wanting to help bring water to Africa, you need to look at who’s doing that already. You need to look at, for example, charity:water and see if you’re best off putting all of your resources into a good charity or starting up an organization. If so, you have to define why. Is it for your own sake? Is it for a particular community that’s being underserviced? Is starting a charitable structure in the best interest of what your mission is?
If your organization will be internationally based, then you have a whole world of pain ahead of you. In the developing world you have to deal with a lack of infrastructure, a lack of controls and enforcement. It’s difficult to do this remotely in the developing world.”