What's with all the celebrity charities? A quick search on the web found a list as long as your arm, everyone from Michael Bloomberg, Tom Brokaw, Sharon Stone, and Andre Agassi to Elton John. It's certainly nice for those with big dough to give some to a worthy cause, but being skeptical by nature, I wonder if something else is going on besides pure philanthropy.
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Listen, Keith, if you anonymously slip a twenty into the Salvation Army kettle, that’s pure philanthropy. If you get a tax break for doing it — and I fill out the charitable donations worksheet for my Schedule A as diligently as the next citizen — it’s not. So let’s have no illusions about the general level of virtue in our society.
The allegedly charitable antics of celebrities occasionally provoke outrage, but that’s partly because they strut on a larger stage. That’s not meant as an excuse for dubious behavior; on the contrary, take it as a caution. The main difference between donating to a celebrity’s charity and the one fronted by the kid at your door claiming he’s earning points for college is that you’re dealing with a better-paid class of mope.
As illustration, consider the following tales gleaned from the net:
Case 1. In 2013 an ESPN Outside the Lines investigation examined 115 charities founded by high-profile athletes and found 74 percent didn’t meet acceptable operating standards for nonprofit organizations. On inquiring more closely, we find the problem often isn’t evil intent so much as paying no attention.
Take the charities set up by Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. What seems to have happened is this: (1) A-Rod gets flak for participating in illegal poker games, decides it’s time for PR makeover. (2) Two kids’ charities set up, fundraiser held, PR problem solved. (3) Everybody forgets about the charities. Neither filed a tax return from 2007 to 2011, leading the IRS to revoke their tax-exempt status. Today all we know is that in 2006, $368,000 in contributions went in and a mere $5,090 worth of good works came out, along with $60,000 spent on expenses, presumably leaving $300,000. Where is it now? Who knows? Rodriguez has other things on his mind at the moment, and 300 grand is pocket change for him anyway. All you can hope is that the people he got it from feel the same way.
Case 2. NBA forward and (for now) Kardashian spouse Lamar Odom set up his charity Cathy’s Kids to help underprivileged children and fight cancer. A $150-per-ticket Hollywood gala in 2009 emphasized the latter aim, but eight years of tax returns showed nothing was ever spent on cancer research. Instead, of $2.2 million raised, $1.3 million went to two elite youth basketball teams. Asked for an explanation, Odom said, “It’s my money.” I won’t argue the point, and I’m willing to stipulate that at least some of the young basketball players may have been underprivileged. This still looks a lot like bait-and-switch.
Case 3. Bristol Palin took some heat a few years ago when it was revealed that in 2009, as celebrity spokesperson for the teen pregnancy prevention charity Candie’s Foundation, she’d been paid $262,500 while a mere $35,000 went to charitable causes. An affronted Neil Cole, the apparel-industry exec running the foundation, protested that Bristol had been an excellent investment: “Bristol’s work — which has included two television PSAs, one viral video, multiple print PSAs, two town hall meetings, and six television interviews — has resulted in more than ONE BILLION media impressions … an unprecedented reach for a teen pregnancy prevention campaign.”
I have no idea how Cole came up with a billion impressions, but let’s assume he’s right. Let’s also acknowledge that Bristol Palin is hardly alone among celebrities in getting paid hefty sums for a laughable workload (six interviews, one video, two town halls!). The fact remains that, under the most favorable interpretation, the outcome of Ms. Palin’s labors was increased public awareness that becoming a pregnant unmarried teenager is a bad idea, unless you’re the daughter of a famous mom and can get well paid for it. No shit.
Point is, even if there’s nothing illegal going on, celebrity charities often are still a waste of other people’s money. That’s not to say they all are. The Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised more than $200 million for HIV/AIDS-related causes, and according to its most recent IRS statement more than 95 percent of its outlay went to programs and services aimed at people who needed them. And the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which has raised about $150 million, gives 91 percent of its funds to the cause.
How do you tell worthwhile charities from useless ones? These days it’s easy. Two good online resources are charitywatch.org and charitynavigator.org — the latter has a box where you can type in an organization’s name and get an evaluation in about ten nanoseconds. The conspicuously bad actors aren’t identified with klaxons and flashing red lights, no doubt due to cautious lawyers. No matter. The facts speak for themselves.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.