In 2020, the Muscular Dystrophy Association held its first fundraising telethon in six years. Actor Kevin Hart hosted the telethon, which says a lot about just how celebrity philanthropy has evolved in the past 20 years.
For most Americans in the pre-digital age, the telethons, hosted by Jerry Lewis for decades, were their only exposure to celebrity philanthropy. In 2010, the MDA’s 22-hour telethon on broadcast television raised $59 million total. Ten years later, the Hart-hosted event, which was streamed on social media channels, reached over 100 million viewers and raised $10.5 million in just two hours.
The 2020 telethon also benefited Hart’s charity, reflecting the growing trend among celebrities of launching their own philanthropic vehicles at a time when their wealth is surging. With a net worth of $200 million, Hart is frequently listed as one of the richest celebrities in the world. Beyond the MDA example, Americans learn about new celebrity fundraisers on a weekly basis.
It was against this backdrop that we began work on the most recent installation in our “State of American Philanthropy” series, “Giving of Celebrities, Athletes and Media Moguls.” The brief, which just went live, looks at how these donors approach giving across an array of causes, including education, the arts and medical research, and provides mini-profiles of prominent actors, producers, media executives, athletes and authors.
This broad and diverse set of donors may not be as affluent as, say, their peers in Silicon Valley, but their fame and influence allow them to marshal global support for a cause with a single social media post. And while nonprofit leaders may have trouble engaging the Beyoncés and Leonardo DiCaprios of the world, they’ll be pleased to learn that a growing number of lower-profile givers, particularly those hailing from the sports world, represent a surprisingly accessible source of funding.
I encourage readers to check out the full brief for a deeper dive into this nuanced and expanding field. In the meantime, here’s a handful of high-level takeaways exploring how celebrities, athletes and media moguls approach their giving.
They share some similar motivations
While it’s always risky to paint donors with a broad brush, our research revealed some common motivating factors among donors hailing from the sports and entertainment worlds, such as “leaving a legacy” and “making a difference in their communities,” by drawing from personal experience, often in partnership with professional networks and philanthropic intermediaries.
In a chat with IP, Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway recalled that actor Ashton Kutcher “wanted to find a charity that would be on his tombstone. Something that he would support for the rest of his life.” He and Kutcher did some research and he said that human trafficking and child pornography arose as the problems he wants to solve, Conway said. Kutcher went on to launch Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, which is focused on stopping online child trafficking and pornography.
Sports philanthropy executive Joanne Pasternack said athletes’ giving is “less about the performance of going out and serving food for a Thanksgiving meal. It’s more about, ‘I’m going to serve food for a Thanksgiving meal because I experienced food insecurity as a youngster, and I want to bring visibility to that and de-stigmatize what it means to be in those types of situations,’” Pasternack said. She told IP this shift was the biggest change in sports philanthropy over the past 10 years.
Examples of celebrity donors motivated by personal experience include Nicki Minaj, who has provided support for St. Jude’s Home for Girls in her native Trinidad, and Chicagoan Chance the Rapper, who launched an arts and literature fund for the city’s schools through his Social Works nonprofit . Notable celebrities who have donated to their alma maters include Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University), Meryl Streep (Vassar College), NBA player Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse University) and Denzel Washington (Fordham University).
Celebrities also aim to make an impact at organizations or institutions where they may only have a casual personal connection. In 2021, billionaire David Geffen gave the Yale School of Drama $150 million to cover tuition for current and future students. Unlike most higher ed mega-donors, Geffen wasn’t an alumnus of the school. Instead, he taught a seminar on the music industry in the 1978–79 academic year.
Their giving takes on a variety of forms
Donors hailing from the entertainment and sports fields take a variety of approaches to philanthropy. These include making large donations, endowing their own private or family foundations, fundraising for signature causes and leveraging their celebrity brands.
The latter factor distinguishes celebrity givers from their peers on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, as athletes and actors are more disposed to using enormous social media platforms to draw attention to a cause and galvanize the masses—and people with a lot more means—to give.
Networking also plays a critical role in the rarefied realm of celebrity giving. Conway said that will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas visited Google years ago and talked about his goal of helping inner-city youth. “I went up and introduced myself to him and told him he had a special calling to help inner-city youth,” Conway said. “I introduced him to Laurene Powell Jobs, who is the founder of College Track, which has a number of branches around the country that help inner-city youth with college preparedness.” will.i.am went on to launch a College Track branch in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights, where he grew up.
In another example underscoring the growing collaboration between celebrities and Silicon Valley, Bloomberg reported that over half of the $428 million donated by billionaire Jack Dorsey over the previous two years “has gone to organizations started by, partnered with or connected to some of the most famous people on the planet—many of whom have a personal relationship with Dorsey.” Individuals whose affiliated organizations received support include John Legend, Sean Penn and Jay Z.
Accessibility varies based on their profile and location
All of the profiled givers in the brief are millionaires or billionaires hailing from the upper echelons of their respective fields. Some, like billionaire media moguls, will be out of reach for the average nonprofit leader. That said, IP research surfaced multiple avenues for nonprofit professionals to access prominent actors and athletes.
Nonprofit leaders looking to engage a celebrity can reach out to the figure’s respective talent or social impact agency. Examples include Oliver+Rose, Athletes’ Voices at Harvard, Propper Daley, the Giving Back Fund, the United Talent Agency Foundation, Creative Artists Agency and William Morris Endeavor Entertainment.
Nonprofit organizations also engage with online for-profit platforms like Prizeo and Omaze that provide donors with unique celebrity experiences. Visitors to Prizeo’s site can donate to a Nature Conservancy campaign to fund global forest restoration. In exchange, they automatically enter themselves in a raffle to win a four-night package to a Dave Matthews Band concert. Visitors to Omaze’s website could donate to Charities Aid Foundation America’s GO campaign to improve the lives of vulnerable children around the world, in exchange for a chance to be actor Robert Pattinson’s VIP guest at the premiere of “The Batman.”
The celebrity giving space also includes an array of lower-profile athletes who conduct their charitable work like conventional place-based donors within their communities. They tend to be more accessible than their popular peers, thereby representing a more viable opportunity for nonprofit leaders looking to engage celebrity givers.
Best practices in managing the celebrity relationship
Organizations that successfully enter into a partnership with celebrities will want to consider a set of factors to fully maximize the relationship.
A report by the consulting firm Zoetica Media and PayPal found that the efficacy of a celebrity’s social media advocacy hinges on his or her level of engagement to the organization or cause. “Engagement matters with social media, often much more so than having a large online fan base at the beginning of a campaign,” the report said. “Unlike a personal appearance, photo op, or scripted [public-service announcement]where just showing up will get it done, social fundraising requires an active, authentic and continued involvement [from the fundraiser] … even if only for a short time.”
Nonprofit leaders should also ensure that the celebrity’s public persona aligns with the organization’s values and prepare for the possibility that their celebrity partner may become embroiled in a scandal that could reflect poorly on the institution. “A consequence of hyper-communications is that people live their lives more than ever in the public eye,” said Genevieve Shaker, associate dean for development and external affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “Celebrities are people just like the rest of us, and sometimes, life doesn’t go as planned.”
We expect celebrity giving to become an even larger and more influential part of the broader philanthropic ecosystem. For starters, their wealth continues to grow to stratospheric levels. According to Forbes, in 2020, the Top 100 of the world’s highest-paid celebrities earned a combined $6.1 billion before taxes and fees. In music, the top 10 highest-paid musicians earned more than $760 million in 2020. The average NBA player salary is roughly $7 million annually.
Celebrities also realize that in the social media age, philanthropy is good for the brand. “Celebrities give charities exposure; charities give celebrities empathy,” writes Jo Piazza, author of “Celebrity, Inc.: How Famous People Make Money.” “Being connected to the right celebrity helps a charity raise more money. Being connected to the right charity makes a celebrity more likable, and likability equals bankability.”
For a slightly less cynical take on the future of celebrity giving, we return to Kevin Hart. Speaking to ABC News leading up to the rebooted MDA telethon, Hart encapsulated the motivations galvanizing an increasingly influential celebrity giving sector that includes actors, athletes, entertainment executives, musicians and writers.
“At this point in my life and my career, it’s finding other things to hold on to,” he said. “Entertainment and comedy—it’s been a thing, it’s been what I’m known for, and I’ve pushed hard to be successful at it. If I can match that energy and switch the gears and start to do things for others and bring awareness and a high level of positivity to the world and hopefully bring people together, put smiles on the faces, heal some, do for some, I will feel like I’ve done my job while here.”