Best practices in celebrity foundation management


Jenny Santi


‘Give me your xxxxing money!’ An urban legend has it that the Irish rocker Bob Geldof blurted this out on a microphone in an effort to raise funds for the Ethiopian famine at LiveAid, the 16-hour superconcert of 1985 that was globally linked by satellite to more than a billion viewers in 110 countries. In a triumph of technology and celebrity activism, the event raised over $100 million in famine relief for Africa. Whether or not that was actually what he said, one thing is true: celebrities have a voice, and if they wanted to use it for social good, they can.

Amidst its proven effectiveness, the field of celebrity philanthropy faces great challenges. In conversations I’ve had with founders and senior staff of foundations of public figures from the world of film, television, sports, music, literature, and royalty, these are a few of the common refrains:

  • ‘Now that celebrity activists are ubiquitous, how can we establish credibility amidst the public’s growing cynicism?’
  • ‘How does a celebrity-led charity navigate the jungle of civil society given how many other non-profits actually want to partner with us and have us lend our names to a cause?’
  • ‘How can we work with entrepreneurs, brands and for-profits – particularly those whose products celebrities endorse – in order to raise funds or use business for social good? How can we achieve scale and do this without being over-dependent on the celebrity?’
  • ‘How can we encourage more celebrities and public figures to be philanthropic despite the fact their moves will always be under great public scrutiny?’

What aggravates these issues I’ve encountered is that collaboration and coordination among celebrity-led organisations is rare, in some cases virtually non-existent. So how can celebrity charities learn from each other’s successes and failures, and collaborate with each other to gain more leverage where it matters? It became obvious to me that the first step was to get them to meet each other – which, to my surprise, barely happens at all.

The convening
In recognition of these issues, I made it my mission to convene senior leaders of foundations of modern-day celebrities. This convening finally took place at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in April 2019, and was attended by the heads of the Royal Foundation of the Duke & Duchess of Sussex & the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge, the Queen Rania Foundation, the CAA (Creative Artists Agency) Foundation, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Charlize Theron Project for Africa, the Naked Heart Foundation (of supermodel Natalia Vodianova), the TriBeCa Film Institute, the Galileo Foundation (of the Pope), the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, the Barefoot Foundation (of Colombian pop star Shakira), and other leaders of foundations of public figures. Here are just some of the lessons gathered from our discussions in Bellagio.

Don’t set up a foundation… unless the celebrity is putting in a significant amount of their own money (at least $1million) and not simply raise funds from other sources, it is better to simply collaborate with an existing charitable organisation whose focus matches their passion. A foundation takes great time, expertise and expense to run.

Have some skin in the game. Some donors don’t react favorably when they find out that a celebrity has merely ‘lent their name’ to a cause and not made actual contributions. If a celebrity foundation is aiming to attract donors or volunteer staff, the celebrity must be transparent about what amounts they have personally contributed.

Hire the right people. A common practice we have seen among celebrity foundations is the tendency to assign foundation responsibilities to one’s well-intended friends, relatives and managers who are trusted members of the celebrity’s inner circle. Running an effective foundation requires technical skill and experience that may require more specialised staff and advisors.

Balance advocacy and action. Raising awareness for important causes is important, and is a role that a celebrity can play especially well thanks to their fame. However, to deepen their understanding of the issue, address any doubts as to their credibility, any advocacy work must be backed by concrete action.

Cultivate donors. Professional fundraisers know that it sometimes takes years of careful cultivation for a gift to come to fruition. Celebrities may have great convening power that gets people to show up, but this is not enough. Celebrity foundations must know the importance of relationship building with past, present and future donors. Stewardship, as opposed to entitlement, is key.

Consider sunsetting. ‘Sunsetting’ – or adopting spend-down deadlines and provisions to close down by a specific date – can make more sense for celebrity foundations given the fleeting nature of fame, and spur them to make more of an impact in the short term.

Consider supporting stigmatised causes. As more public figures bravely share their story of face-to-face lived experience relating to a controversial or stigmatised cause (such as Prince Harry revealing his personal mental health battles), incredible shifts start to happen. The public begins to see that celebrities are more like us than we imagined, and we in turn feel less fearful about opening up about our own challenges.

Be mindful when throwing galas and fundraisers. Throwing big events are not necessarily the most efficient means of fundraising and awareness raising. A small dinner party attended by those who really care can raise the same amount of money – and cost a fraction of what a gala might

Use the celebrity’s unique assets. There are huge benefits to having a coordinated approach within a celebrity’s whole team (from PR, to management, to the philanthropic foundation). For example, when a celebrity lands a commercial endorsement deal, the manager can make sure there is a clause that stipulates a percentage of the brand deal goes to the celebrity’s foundation.

Celebrity philanthropy is a niche area that is either dismissed for its perceived superficiality, and or in certain settings revered without proper context. But as these lessons from Bellagio show us, great things can happen when stars align.

Jenny Santi is founder of Saint Partners Philanthropy Services

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