High-Profile Celebrities Gain Attention for Africa

Alan J. Abramson
Director, Nonprofit Sector and Philanthropy Program, Aspen Institute
Monday, June 11, 2007; 3:30 PM

Alan J. Abramson, director of the nonprofit sector and philanthropy program at the Aspen Institute, a research and advocacy organization, was online Monday, June 11 at 3:30 p.m. ET to discuss how celebrity involvement gives a political and economic boost to global philanthropic efforts, including intervention and aid to Africa.

Hollywood Stars Find an Audience For Social Causes (Post, June 10)

The transcript follows.


Alan J. Abramson: I'm pleased to be part of this forum on the interesting and important topic of celebrity philanthropy, and I look forward to our discussion in the next hour.


Washington, D.C.: This is a sad commentary of the American people, when we need Hollywood Stars to guide us in world affairs. We have been down this path too many times. Charity should begin at home, we have many in need and numerous programs in need of funding in the U.S. Study after study has documented that feeding those in the third world, only results in increased population growth, putting you back where you started.

Alan J. Abramson: Of course. We do have huge unmet social needs in this country. But, I think it's important to note that the statistics on giving indicate that much of our charity does stay at home -- only about 2 percent to 3 percent of U.S. giving goes abroad.


Columbia, Md.: Alan, you were quoted saying that "celebrities are like corporations, they make money, do good, and get their names out there." Are the celebrities that you deal with all this blatantly self-serving? Corporations support charity for their own selfish interests; the charity part is incidental to their primary motivations. Are you saying that celebrities have the same craven motivations? After all, you lead your quote with "make money." For whom? Exactly what did you mean?

Alan J. Abramson: What I meant was that celebrity philanthropy often can be a win-win for the celebrity and the cause. For celebrities, philanthropy can help to improve their public image through the association with a good cause. And more popular celebrities may be able to command bigger "paychecks" and thereby make more money over the long run as a result of their philanthropic activity. For the "cause," an association with a celebrity often can bring increased donations. -- and so, like the celebrity, the "cause" may also make more money.


Lyme, Conn.: What percent of donations go towards administrative costs and what percent ends up in Africa assisting people?

Alan J. Abramson: Administrative costs can vary a lot from nonprofit to nonprofit. While agencies always should try to minimize their overhead costs, I think donors sometimes focus too much on administrative costs, shying away from agencies which have higher overhead. There may be very good reasons why some agencies have high admin costs. I would encourage donors, if they can, to look beyond an agency's admin costs to find out about the quality of services being delivered -- and the challenges they may face in delivering services, which can contribute to a high overhead rate.


Washington, D.C.: It is hard for me to have a shred of respect for people like Bono, Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney and Angelina Jolie when they take up safe causes like poverty in Africa. They're mostly people with mediocre talent trying to appear benevolent in a lame attempt to expand their fan base, not help people in need. One exception would be Sean Penn, who took a professionally suicidal but courageous move by visiting Baghdad prior to the war to make us aware of the human toll the Iraqis were likely to suffer, and subsequently visiting Tehran to show us that most Iranians are normal people like us, not rabid Mullahs intent on destroying the West. Yet people like Sean Penn don't get the recognition or publicity they deserve for their good deeds. By choosing to keep silent on Bush's immoral oil war in Iraq, and then shed crocodile tears to poverty stricken people in Africa, Bono, Oprah, Clooney and Jolie have exposed themselves as hypocrites possessing even less integrity than so-called celebrities like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.

Alan J. Abramson: There are certainly some causes that are more popular than others. Even more than ordinary people, celebrities will weigh the potential costs to their public standing of being associated with unpopular causes. I think it's also important to note that addressing issues of poverty in Africa has not always been a high-priority concern in this country. Celebrity involvement has helped to raise its visibility.


Alexandria, Va.: Generally speaking, are stars' interest in these issues genuine and sustained, or are they opportunistic recommendations of some publicist somewhere?

Alan J. Abramson: I don't know for sure, but it probably varies. I'm especially impressed with celebrities who give generously of their time and their own money over a longer period of time, which some do.


Washington, D.C.: What can average citizens who don't have a lot of extra money lying around do to help?

Alan J. Abramson: I think every little bit helps. And people without money can sometimes give of their time, which can be just as important.


Washington, D.C.: While I think it's great that actors have used their fame for important causes such as debt relief, do you think that they effectively have been able to direct their efforts? It is important that the administration makes commitments to debt reduction, but without appropriations it's not much more than talk. And looking even further down the line, what sort of efforts can these celebrities make -- that governments can't or won't -- to keep these countries from getting back into even more debt?

Alan J. Abramson: Debt relief is a complicated topic about which I don't pretend to be an expert. However, I think it's important to note that one of the main activities of philanthropy can be to try to advocate for or against some government action. In many fields, the resources available through philanthropy pale compared to the resources available to government, so philanthropy often tries to "leverage" or catalyze government spending. Even with all its resources, the Gates Foundation has recognized that compared to government funds, its foundation funds are modest and that collaborating with government can be an important way to achieve the foundation's goals.


Falls Church, Va.: If you have a charity, what's the best way to get a celebrity interested in your cause (or your organization)?

Alan J. Abramson: That's a good question, and I'm not sure I have the best answer. Perhaps working through celebrity agents would be one way to go.


Lyme, Conn.: In general, how much of celebrity fund raising for Africa becomes direct aide to people in Africa, and how much gets used for administrative costs and other non-assistance expenses? In other words, do celebrities' contributions tend to be more direct in helping others, or do some fundraisers take advantage of the celebrity name and fail to pass along sizable amounts of funds raised?

Alan J. Abramson: Fundraising costs can vary greatly and, I think, sometimes properly so. Some causes are much harder to raise money for than others. I think that agencies should try to keep their fundraising costs as low as they can and also be transparent -- or open -- about these costs. At the same time, I think that donors should be a little more open-minded about supporting agencies that have administrative costs that may appear to be a little high but for good reason.


"Hypocrites": Most of the celebrities that the above poster tagged as hypocrites put their money -- and their time -- where their mouths are. Angelina Jolie, for example, gives roughly a third of her income from films to various charities and travels to places that could generously be described as hell on earth as an ambassador for UNHCR. Unless you're doing the same, kindly refrain from slapping the hypocrite label on them. Many celebrities actively involved in various causes refrain from engaging in political discussions or diatribes because they know that it benefits their causes to attempt to work with whoever is currently in office, regardless of party affiliation. Sean Penn had a political agenda -- he disagreed with the war -- and went to Iraq to call attention to it. Leaving politics out of it, I can admire him for being brave enough to go and using his fame to bring attention to a cause. I think I can admire all celebrities who do so, regardless of what their political leanings or opinions on the war are. The war has been devastating, but there are other things just as devastating: AIDS, poverty, famine, earthquakes, hurricanes. Reducing a contribution to whether someone speaks for or against the war is a waste of time when there are many causes that need attention.

Alan J. Abramson: I don't have a specific response to this comment, but just wanted to post it as I received it.


Arlington, Va.: Because Angelina Jolie is the U.N. goodwill ambassador, why does she not talk about the plight of the Palestinian refugees? There are well over 4 million Palestinian refugees in the world, not counting the displaced (my father). Do the U.S. media/Hollywood consider it inappropriate? Thanks.

Alan J. Abramson: That's a good question, and I'm not sure I have a good answer. It's not always clear what leads a celebrity to speak out on one issue or another. I think there are ways of framing this issue as a human issue and avoiding the complicated politics. However, in order to protect their images, celebrities may be inclined to shy away from issues that they perceive -- rightly or wrongly -- as too controversial.


Washington, D.C.: I work for an international nongovernmental organization and these questions about money going to administrative costs always get me angry. Do these people think that I should work for free? I make a whole lot less than I would in the private sector, but my salary, pencils and computer have got to come from somewhere!

Alan J. Abramson: As I've indicated, I believe that donors are sometimes too knee-jerk in their reaction against administrative costs. However, agencies are sometimes complicit in this by over-advertising their low overhead rates. What we need is more honesty about what administrative costs are and why they are important.


Alan J. Abramson: I need to sign-off at this point. However, I do appreciate the thoughtful questions people posed, and I enjoyed being a part of this forum.


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