Socially Conscious Stars?

A fairy tale became real life on April 29th 2011, as many of us witnessed a once a lifetime union between royalty. Exceeding typical celebrity status, the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton was viewed by approximately 3 billion people worldwide, as estimated by the New York Times. As glamorous as the ceremony was, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have urged that guests as well as the public wishing to give wedding gifts, instead donate to a charity.  The donations will go towards 26  “little known and unfashionable” organizations, which altogether make up the couples’ charitable gift fund. The organizations cover a range of causes including mentally ill ex-servicemen, young offenders, former gang members, bullied youngsters, refugee students, homeless people, and teenage drug addicts.

As laudable as the new couples’ efforts are, celebrities and public figures have been undeniable in the philanthropic sector for decades.  Chief causes driving celebrity philanthropy include: AIDs, Abuse, Cancer, Environment, Education, Disaster relief and Poverty and Human rights, amongst others.  Currently, some of the top celebrity philanthropists include:

Oprah with students in South Africa
  • Oprah Winfrey:  In 2007 Oprah donated $58.3 million to Oprah’s Angel network, which aims to help the lives of underprivileged people. She also teaches classes via satellite at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, and is involved in numerous other charities and philanthropic efforts
  • Angelina Jolie: A goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina is physically active in her philanthropy, meeting with refugees in over 20 countries worldwide. She is a human rights activist and is often in the political scene, meeting with legislators and speaking on humanitarian causes.
  • Madonna:  Madonna started an organization “Raising Malawi” in 2006; it aims to provide children in Malawi, Africa with access to nutritious food, proper clothing, secure shelter, formal education, targeted medical care, and psychological support. Madonna has pledged to match any donations made to the organization as well.
  • Bono: Bono, who has been nominated for 3 Nobel Peace prizes, is well known in philanthropic cirlces. Since visiting Ethiopia with World Vision to develop an educational program with music and acting in 1986, Bono has been a lead player in fighting poverty. Bono has been a crucial factor in founding Debt AIDS Trade Africa (DATA), (RED), and EDUN, all of which support Africa in fighting poverty and AIDS.

Other celebrities among the top ten celebrity philanthropists in 2010 include: Justin Timberlake, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Rhianna and Reese Witherspoon. Yet, celebrities are not exempt from the discrepancies and scandals involved with charity work and philanthropy. If anything, remaining public figures and house hold names magnifies all aspects of their lives under the public eye.

Case in point, earlier this year Madonna was forced to abandon a project in her charity that was to build a school for girls in Malawi. The managers and officials in charge of this project were reported to have squandered $3.8 million, the total cost of the school anticipated to cost $15 million.  The funds were collected through donations from Kabbalah Center and from celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna herself investing $11 million. An audit exposed that the two main players, executive director Phillipe van den Bossche and school leader Anjimile Oponyo spent the funds on design fees, staff salaries, cars, free housing and a golf course membership before construction even began.

The scandal came not only as a surprise to the Malawian citizens and government, but also caused uproar and chaos in certain areas and villages, as many villagers were reported to have foregone land and homes in order to make room for the 117 acre site, situated near the nation’s capital of Lilongwe.

A similar scandal involves the infamous Three Cups of Tea author, Greg Mortenson.  Following allegations aired on the TV show “60 minutes”, Mortenson has found himself thrown in the middle of a scandal, forcing him to defend his organization “the Central Asia Institute”. Mortenson has been accused of using his organization for personal gain, while distorting the truth regarding the organizations accomplishments. The focal points of this scandal revolve around whether the money raised for the organization was used primarily towards schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or whether it went towards promoting sales for Mortenson’s books as well as “helping him snare lucrative speaking fees”.  Although Mortenson and his colleges have agreed to cooperate with investigators,  Mortenson will face personal penalties alongside the loss of support and an ultimate shut down of his charity, Central Asia Institute if found guilty. Such scandals in the philanthropic sector affect the public’s confidence in philanthropy and humanitarian causes, ultimately affecting other charities as well. Although available evidence indicates that “fraudulent activity at nonprofits is not widespread”, charities will be subjected to tighter regulations and magnified scrutiny, unlike seen before.

Three cups of Tea

Charities thrive on public trust and so must sustain and protect their credibility. In the The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Emily Chan and Gene Takagi (Lawyers in San Francisco who specialize in advising non- profits) highlight several key steps non profits and charity officials should take in order to justify and protect their credibility.

  •  Consider public expectations in every report and publication
  • View the informational tax return as a public-disclosure document, not just as an IRS form
  • Watch for potential conflicts of interest involving top executives and board members.
  • Prevent “sweetheart” deals that benefit a charity’s officials/ board members
  • Structure the board to engender public trust
  • Adopt clear and fair travel policies
  • Draft an emergency-response plan long before any problems can arise

Although there are typically more fraudulent officials with ulterior motives in other sectors (such as business and government), than seen with non profits, we are likely to see increased public scrutiny and attention in philanthropy today as the industry expands. The public is demanding better transparency and accountability when it comes to charity work and donations for various projects. It is imperative that celebrities and charity founders alike take extra precaution when developing programs funded by or affecting the public.  With more charities taking the previously mentioned steps emphasized by Chan and Takagi, the amount of scandal in philanthropy may be kept to a minimum. If successful, philanthropy will continue to grow and thrive with the public feeling a “greater bang for their buck”.

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