CineEurope 2016: Scott Neeson, Variety International Children’s Fund Humanitarian Award
Interview with Scott Neeson, Founder, Cambodian Children’s Fund
How did you first get involved in the film industry?
I was educated in Australia and was not an especially adept student. I left before finishing high school. The federal government job scheme found a job for me working as a projectionist at the drive-in movie theaters and during the day as an assistant in their home office. I worked up from there.
Had the thought of transitioning your career to social service, as you have now, ever cross your mind before your visiting Phnom Penh in 2003, when you decided to focus your energy on helping Cambodia?
Absolutely not. I loved my time in the film business. It was not just the great lifestyle and the Hollywood glamor, but I had some really good, close friends, and I loved working in such a dynamic industry. The decision to start the charity was based on my experience in this one particular area of Cambodia; otherwise I would still be happily working in the film business.
Was it always part of the plan to transition to Cambodia full time? Or was there a specific moment when you realized you needed to devote all your time to the endeavor?
When I left Cambodia it was with some regret. I felt like I had found my mission and I was enormously driven by the potential to make an impact amongst this community. My original plan was to keep my Hollywood position and send as much money as possible to Cambodia to fund the operations here. I was very conscious that there was a tipping point where the value of my being based in Cambodia was greater than the value of the money I could send across every month. I also had a great issue with the emotional reconciliation of being amongst a very wealthy and infamously indulgent Hollywood community one day and, quite literally, on a garbage dump where children are living and dying the next. I was 45 at that time and very conscious of not having a high-profile and classic midlife crisis, and so I promised myself I would wait 12 months before making any decision about where I would be based. At the end of the 12 months it was clear that my heart was in Cambodia.
What lessons from your time at major studios did you bring in building and developing an important mission-based organization like the Cambodian Children’s Fund?
I believe one of the reasons that Cambodian Children’s Fund is such a success—whether in terms of the measurable impacts of education, maternal care, community standards, or whether measured by our financial management and transparency—is largely a factor of my corporate life. Corporate America has very high standards in terms of compliance, policy, and profitability, and these are assets that don’t normally apply to the nonprofit world. I have been accused of running CCF “more like a business,” which I thought was a compliment, but I found out later they were insulting me!
What are some of the initiatives you’re currently developing at the Cambodian Children’s Fund?
The Cambodian Children’s Fund provides not just help for these impoverished children but also ensures that their families and siblings are also cared for. A child cannot have a consistent and sustainable education if the parents are unable to pay rent that day or if the child’s siblings are going hungry. Over time we developed services that ensured that the children could study free from the burden of having to provide for their own families. I found that lifting the responsibility of caring for family, sick grandparents, younger siblings, rent, and food from their shoulders was likely the greatest gift to give a child. They were free to be children again, and their biggest ambition was to get into school.
The model has matured and, like Variety – the Children’s Charity, we now provide a series of programs that encompasses all the needs of the children. We are at capacity in terms of students and we are now looking at both the quality of programs and ways to better deliver to the community. I firmly believe that the future of a charitable organization isn’t in building to a national capacity. A worldwide solution works well if it is treating an illness, for example elimination of smallpox, or a research-based initiative. However, when looking at social ills, community-based problems, lack of access to education, gender inequality, then the solution has to be done at a community level. I believe that replicating at a community level is far more effective then attempting to scale up a good idea but at the cost of adding in bureaucracy, dependence, and without an exit plan.
One of the things we are very proud of is that of our initial students, 130 are now in university and they are taking on responsibility for a lot of the community issues. We combine high-level education with community leadership. The world has a surplus of highly educated people who aren’t giving back and are very much focused on simply succeeding in business or careers. If we are to change the world significantly, then we have to focus on not just education but on community responsibility, giving back, the fundamentals of wisdom, and family structure.
Do you still keep up with the trades and the latest news from the film industry?
I try and keep up with the trades and what is going on in the film industry. I maintain a few close relationships with friends in Hollywood who keep me updated. I think the Hollywood attraction is a universal thing, and even if you are not in the business it still has that magnetism.