Charlie Weingarten finds fresh ways to champion selfless acts of philanthropy

A member of a philanthropic family founded Explore.org to inspire selflessness and lifelong learning.

By , Correspondent

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    Charlie Weingarten reads the Common Threads creed as Kemai Richardson finishes stirring some dipping sauce during a Common Threads cooking class in Los Angeles. The program, one of many projects started by Mr. Weingarten, aims to teach children to love healthy cooking and eating.
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Charlie Annenberg Weingarten wants you to fall in love – with the world. That is one reason he founded Explore.org, his nonprofit, multimedia philanthropic organization.

As the grandson of Walter Annenberg, one of America's foremost philanthropists, Mr. Weingarten concedes, "Giving is kind of in my DNA." Yet he wants to do more than just write out impersonal checks.

His approach to helping others starts with rolling up his own sleeves. Weingarten and his team suss out giving prospects. Then he spends time with the people he's considering helping. He immerses himself in their world – often without their knowledge of what he can do for them.

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Explore.org has a three-part mission: to champion the selfless acts of others, to provide a portal into the soul of humanity, and to inspire lifelong learning. Today Explore.org supports more than 100 nonprofits, including Weingarten's latest, a community on Facebook called "Dog Bless You," dedicated to championing the selfless acts of dogs.

With a base of more than 275,000 followers, Dog Bless You recently brought service dogs to 35 military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It also helped send search-and-rescue dogs to Japan within hours of last year's massive earthquake and tsunami.

The seeds of Explore.org began after Weingarten graduated from the school of cinema and television at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Hauling out his video camera, he prepared to visit famed British anthropologist Jane Goodall in Africa.

Using the trip as a philanthropic fact-finding mission, he videotaped and recorded people he met along the way. When he returned home, he realized he could archive video of these remarkable people and show the connections among all people.

Hundreds of documentaries and tens of thousands of photographs and travel miles later, Weingarten has built an audience that wants to inspire and be inspired.

Explore.org now employs 11 full-time staff and a half-dozen consultants at its offices in Santa Monica, Calif. But one constant remains since Weingarten's first solo trip to Africa: his insatiable curiosity and love of learning.

A case in point: About four years ago, Imam Jihad Turk, director of the Islamic Center of Southern California, met Weingarten when he stopped by to express interest in learning about Islam. Weingarten had also contacted a priest and a rabbi because he wanted to learn more about the common threads running through the three Abrahamic faiths.

After a month of intense study with Mr.Turk, Weingarten invited the three clergymen to go with him to the Holy Land. Only Turk could get away at the time.

"It would be so easy for Charlie to be concerned with only himself," says Turk, "but instead he travels to find hidden treasures. He's open-minded – he has no angle. And he has a curiosity that's inspiring."

Turk says that Weingarten resists religious labels for himself. "He just wants to know. He's an explorer."

The documentary from that trip, "Travels with Jihad," is now part of Explore.org's "library of inspiration."

Award-winning chef Art Smith met Weingarten through Oprah Winfrey and found him to be a "bright young man." The two bonded as they talked about fatherhood, community, and paying it forward.

Later, Mr. Smith stopped to visit his new friend in L.A. Weingarten's then 2-year-old daughter, Lily Eve, wouldn't eat her dinner, so the famous chef bent down and popped a piece of broccoli into his mouth. Lily Eve immediately did the same. Smith explained that kids will eat what they see adults eat.

From that small act Common Threads was born, a project that teaches children about healthy eating.

"From one chance meeting – a little girl, a chef, a philanthropist – and one small piece of broccoli," Smith says, "now 6,000 kids a year get a free cooking lesson."

Giving doesn't mean you don't also take care of yourself, Weingarten says. You need to find the balance, the yin and yang.

Weingarten's world reflects that equilibrium. For example, his offices face the Pacific Ocean, providing a zillion-dollar view – but no sign announces his famous name. Inside, the furnishings are modest, yet state-of-the-art HD screens hang on the walls continuously running his latest video project, "Pearls of the Planet."

These live video feeds from around the world kicked off last year by showing polar bear migrations in Manitoba.

Weingarten says he always envisioned Explore.org as a place of trust, the opposite state of mind from what he calls ATD (Addicted to Drama) – which he sees as a disease. Explore.org is an antidote to ATD and "the big business of fear," he says.

Explore.org considers itself unique because it doesn't try to persuade visitors. People who go to the website make their own deep connections, Weingarten says.

You change the world when you change yourself, he says. "People are the same everywhere – everyone just wants to feel validated, respected, heard."

• For more, visit: Explore.org

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