When deadly tornadoes ripped through Oklahoma last week, it took just days for native Blake Shelton to organize a celebrity benefit concert. Wife Miranda Lambert and pals (Reba McEntire, Usher, Vince Gill) quickly signed up, leveraging their fame and giving fans a chance to feel good about doing good. Wednesday’s live concert in Oklahoma City sold out in less than five minutes.
Noble intentions all around (except for scalpers reselling the $25 tickets). But it remains to be seen if “Healing in the Heartland: Relief Benefit Concert” will actually help victims — or join the ranks of hastily-conceived attempts at humanitarian relief.
“There’s an awful lot of emotional giving that happens after a disaster,” said Heather Joslyn, an editor at the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “Sometimes that can be a recipe for wasteful spending.”
George Harrison’s 1971 star-studded concerts for Bangladesh, the granddad of the genre, raised global awareness for refugees — but was plagued by questions about what happened to the money. In 1985, Bob Geldof’s Live Aid had the same problem — tons of publicity for the concert and musicians, but serious issues about whether millions went to corrupt government officials instead of famine relief.
Now there’s a benefit concert after almost every national tragedy — 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Haiti’s earthquake, Japan’s tsunami, Hurricane Sandy, the Boston bombings — with a line-up of A-list fundraisers. “There is a multiplier effect,” explained Joslyn. “A celebrity can write a check for $1 million, but if they give a televised concert, it will definitely bring in more money.” Live Aid holds the fundraising record at $245 million, followed by a 9/11 tribute concert in New York that brought in $150 million for victims.
Last December’s “12-12-12” concert in New York City — with Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton — raised $50 million for Hurricane Sandy victims, said David Saltzman, the executive director of the Robin Hood Foundation.
The New York charity organized the event and received money from 260,000 donors in 90 countries; expenses for the production were underwritten by corporate sponsors so “every single penny” went to relief efforts. The concert was free (except for the 13,500 deep-pocket donors in Madison Square Garden) and available online and on 130 networks. Supporters contributed online or by phone; all the money raised has already been distributed, Saltzman told us.
His advice to the stars and fans participating in the Oklahoma concert? “It’s really important for the performers to make clear what the plan is for distributing the money raised,” he said. Organizers have announced that proceeds from the event are slated for the United Way of Central Oklahoma May Tornadoes Relief Fund.
And, despite the almost knee-jerk announcement of a celebrity concert after every disaster, Saltzman told us he’s still moved by each one. “In my mind, it’s a way of building a sense of community,” he said. “Think of these as incredibly big, incredibly effective bake sales for a neighbor in need.”
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