When Lew Wasserman appointed a then-35-year-old Lisa Paulsen CEO of show business' leading charitable organization in 1990, he knew what he was doing. Subse-quently, Paulsen, 57, a mother of two who began her career in corporate communications at NBC, has helped raise much of the $800 million the Entertainment Industry Foundation has given away -- including $183 million in 2010 alone. Bristling with energy, she spends half her year on fund-raising trips to places such as Qatar, Abu Dhabi and South Africa; thinks nothing of asking individuals for millions; and is a point person for the likes of George Clooney and Katie Couric when they want support for their charities. Aided by 45 staffers in Los Angeles and New York -- and a board including CAA's Kevin Huvane, former Paramount CEO Sherry Lansing and Warner Bros.' Lynn Harris -- Paulsen has launched an anti-smoking campaign, Hollywood Unfiltered; created the EIF Revlon Run/Walk, a cancer fund-raiser; raised money for veterans; and supported telethons for Hurricane Katrina, Haiti and Stand Up to Cancer, which she co-founded with Couric, Laura Ziskin and Lansing, among others. She's planning a major thrust into education, to be unveiled this year.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: What is the EIF, and how did it come into being?
Lisa Paulsen: The EIF was actually founded as the Permanent Charities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry in 1942 by James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Samuel Goldwyn and the Warner brothers. It was during the war, and all the studios asked their employees to give a percentage of what they earned into a pooled fund. We don't do that anymore.
THR: How do you raise money now?
Paulsen: Through individuals and sponsors. We'd been generating $1 million to $2 million a year until the mid-1990s; now we generate up to $180 million annually. We've received over $30 million from Major League Baseball and $25 million from philanthropist Sidney Kimmel. [But] fund-raising is more challenging in the current economic climate.
THR: How do you persuade them to give that much cash?
Paulsen: You have to listen to people and understand what they want. Step one is to identify the companies or people who will be interested in investing in cancer research or education or the environment; we have a staff that researches prospective donors. Step two is, if I don't know the decision-maker, I call someone in the industry that might. So Katie Couric called New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and said, "We are launching this new cancer initiative, and my colleague would like to communicate with you." Then she and Laura Ziskin and I went in and said, "We'd love $10 million." And he said yes.
THR: Do many people say no?
Paulsen: Not very many. (Smiles.)
THR: Where does the money go?
Paulsen: Our board determined that we would improve lives in five key areas: education, health, the environment, poverty/hunger and service/volunteerism. We create initiatives led by world-class leaders; we invest in research and nonprofits; and we help industry members build important philanthropic programs.
THR: I know education is an area you are keen to transform. What are your plans?
Paulsen: We've been wanting to build a significant education initiative, and we will -- but it has been frustrating. The tough thing is that there doesn't seem to be a consensus of thought, the way there was with the scientific community and cancer research. We want this to be on the scale of Stand Up to Cancer, which has raised more than $180 million.
THR: Cancer clearly affects you deeply. Why?
Paulsen: My father and mother were both diagnosed in the same month, five years ago. I said: "I have to fly you to California. I'm going to take care of you." And they said: "No. We want to stay here [in Terre Haute, Ind.]." There was an oncologist there, building a new cancer facility. And because of all my colleagues who helped [with advice and moral support], they named it after my parents, the Coleman Cancer Center. All of the scientists flew in for the opening. There were two Nobel laureates. It was so personal and emotional for me.
THR: Do you get emotional a lot?
Paulsen: Every time I step into a room anywhere, there's somebody connected to one of our cancer stories, and I constantly cry.
THR: How do you escape the pressure?
Paulsen: I'm a glider pilot. You can fly up to 35,000 feet, if you're skilled -- which I'm not. It's so beautiful; it's so poetic. And luckily, there's room for error!
IN THE OFFICE
Poster Child: The Stand Up to Cancer poster was created as a gift for the talent taking part in the 2010 telethon, a one-hour “roadblock” that aired on all four major broadcast networks and drew pledges totaling $80 million.
Mother's Pride: Paulsen and her son, Trent, are pictured at a fund-raising event for City Year, a national dropout-prevention program. Trent served for a year as a mentor at an inner-city school.
Gold Standard: Created by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce in 1942, the scepter is a symbol of the community's philanthropic leadership and is passed from leader to leader.