Looking to the Stars: Celebs' Charitable Affiliations

It’s the in-thing for celebs to align themselves to charitable causes. But is this true activism or pure self-promotion?

By Jamie Khoo | Published: 5 Jan 2014

Celebs and Charity
Photo: Katy Perry in Madagascar as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador/UNICEF/Getty Images

Celebrity endorsement is not a new thing. It’s worked to endear us to commercial brands and gives us revered glimpses into the ‘ordinary’ lives of celebrities. It’s also brought bigger exposure for charitable organisations and inspired greater participation from ordinary folk . 

Today, though, when just about every celebrity supports just about every charity, it’s becoming harder to identify who’s doing it for real and who’s just being self-serving.

Recently, Katy Perry’s been championing the cause for the protection and well-being of children through her work with UNICEF as a Goodwill Ambassador. UNICEF’s chief of celebrity relations and partnerships, Marissa Buckanoff spoke to about Perry’s involvement: “Katy Perry took over a week out of her busy schedule to travel to Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, and upon her return, she was able to highlight the challenges children there face to much larger audiences than we could secure without someone of her stature.”

Buckanoff further noted the power of celebrities to garner immediate mass support during global emergencies. During the recent typhoon in the Philippines celebrities used their social media platforms to “urge the public to support the children there; the public responded with tremendous generosity.”

To Write Love on Her Arms
(TWLOHA), a non-profit movement to help sufferers of depression, addiction and suicide, have also benefited from celebrity friendships. Founder Jamie Tworkowski attributes winning a $1million grant at 2011 American Giving Awards to the support of celebs like Sophia Bush, Christina Perri and Miley Cyrus who consistently tweet and post about TWLOHA and attend events.

But then, there’s that thing about celebrities just making a fool of themselves. In late 2013, The Telegraph followed Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern on her first trip to Africa as a charity ambassador of World Vision, revealing along the way just how uninformed she was about her own cause.

First, it was revealed that she decided to support World Vision without even realising that it was a Christian-based organisation. She then confuses being in Dakar, Senegal with Darfur, Sudan. She says that this trip is “like a holiday” and makes embarrassing sweeping statements: “I get the impression that in Africa people have sex far more freely than we do back home. […] I wonder if World Vision would take on the problem of women wearing the burka? And that clitoris thing is awful.”

We also can’t forget Geri Halliwell blundering her way through her United Nations ambassadorship as she gate-crashed parties she wasn’t invited to and made ignorant comments on her missions abroad. She was quoted in The Guardian as foolishly declaring, on a trip to Nepal, “My presence apparently gave the confidence for that new prime minister [of Nepal] to speak out about violence against women because there was a western presence there.”

It’s not all botched jobs though. We’ve also seen huge passion and growth arising from celebrity-backed causes. The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) for Parkinson’s Research and the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) are clear examples of foundations that have contributed significantly to facilitating research to find cures and support patients.

For example, since it started in 2000, MJFF has granted $375 million towards research and clinical tests to treat, cure and vaccinate against Parkinson’s Disease. EJAF have raised over $300 million to fund HIV prevention programmes, campaigns to reduce discrimination, and direct treatment, care and support of patients, both on a global scale and in smaller, local communities. To maintain transparency and accountability, both foundations’ financials are easily viewed on their websites.

However, no matter how professional NGOs and their celebrity supporters may be, Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator (a non-profit organisation in the USA set up to study and evaluate the financial and ethical practices of charities) advises donors to take responsibility for their own contributions. “It is wonderful that celebrities have the power to make us aware of causes that need our support. But the onus is still on donors to do their homework before making a contribution. A celebrity’s endorsement cannot serve as a substitute for researching a charity.”

Berger also advises that “celebrities shouldn’t be paid for such endorsements. Authenticity is key in any celebrity-charity partnerships and we should be able to ascertain some connection or passion the celebrity has for the cause.”

So we raise a skeptical eyebrow at McGovern’s six-month sponsorship of an African girl, at £22.80 a month, when we hear that World Vision gave £28,000 to her band, Sadie and the Hotheads, to fund their latest album and tour. In exchange, the band would promote the charity and McGovern channelled a portion of public funds raised for her next album to World Vision. In cases like these, it isn’t clear who’s really helping whom.

So the onus is back on us, the donors, to be discerning about where we put our money and heart. Instead of debating the sincerity of stars, we might do better by checking in with our own: are we donating on a star-struck impulse or because that cause truly tugs at our heartstrings?


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