Attention celebrities: 5 things you should know before starting your foundation

Actress Angelina Jolie, who serves as a U.N. refugee agency special envoy, records the stories of refugees that have escaped the war in Syria. Celebrities are uniquely positioned to mobilize others to action, but how can they truly make their mark on global development? Photo by: O. Laban-Mattei / UNHCR

While famous people have long played a key role in making the masses care about causes, recent years have seen a boom in celebrity philanthropy. More and more high profile humanitarians are lending their star power either by supporting existing organizations or launching initiatives of their own to drive attention toward international issues. Devex spoke with a few of the experts helping celebrities explore their options and rounded up their advice for big names looking to make their mark on global development.

1. Identify a cause you can commit to for the long haul.

Celebrities are uniquely positioned to mobilize others to action, so they should embrace the spotlight, said Trevor Neilson, who started the Los Angeles-based Global Philanthropy Group. While Neilson says philanthropy should be sexy, the money and visibility that comes with celebrity involvement adds the most value when it comes to unsexy causes. For example, more children die of diarrhea than of AIDS, malaria, and TB combined, so it would help to have more star power to raise awareness for sanitation or rehydration.

“You have to ask yourself not only what are you passionate about, but where can you make a difference?” said Bob Kelty, the Executive Director of Amref Health Africa in the USA. Kelty is also the former executive director of the foundation Richard Gere launched to raise awareness for Tibet and galvanize support for the fight against HIV/AIDs. He said Gere set himself apart by focusing on the issues he cares about as compared to many celebrities who compromise their credibility by moving from one cause to the next.

2. Do your due diligence.

Angelina Jolie may have made it look easy when she called for action on World Refugee Day or testified about rape as a weapon of war, but since filming Tomb Raider in Cambodia inspired the actress to pursue humanitarian work, she has gone on a steady stream of missions to the most remote regions of the world.

The experts who spoke with Devex said that they would rather work with celebrities who are genuinely interested in the subject matter, and willing to explore the complexity of the issues at hand, rather than stars who appear on the cover of every magazine but expect to show up, sign a few autographs, and call it a day.  “The one off, fly by night, I’m going to solve this problem attitude is doomed to fail,” Lara Bergthold, a campaign and communications strategist with RALLY in Los Angeles, told Devex.  “It just never works.”

She emphasized the importance of homework and humility. “Knowing what you don’t know is more important than claiming that you know everything,” Bergthold said.

If celebrities speak publicly about an issue before they have educated themselves, their fans will question their commitment to the cause, said philanthropy and sustainability advisor Dawn Emling. And the pressure is on now more than ever, given that young people expect the stars they follow on social media to know at least as much as they do about the issues they claim to support. "Millennials are exceptionally savvy on global citizenship issues,” she said. “Spokespeople that can talk about substance are the ones who are going to get listened to.”

As rising stars take the reigns of new causes, like Lupita Nyong’o joining WildAid as a Global Elephant Ambassador, the consultants who work with them hope they will understand all that will be expected of them beyond their social media profiles.

3. Consider how you might support existing efforts.

Celebrities often make two key mistakes: not doing a landscape analysis of what is out there and not understanding how they can support existing efforts, Bergthold said.

Actors, activists, and close friends Ben Affleck and Matt Damon joined forces with people who could devote more of a full time focus to the causes they care about. Affleck looked to Whitney Williams, the founder and CEO of the Seattle, Washington based strategic advisory firm Williamsworks when he launched the Eastern Congo Initiative. And in 2009, Damon merged his H20 Africa with WaterPartners, cofounded by Gary White, to form

“I’m very much opposed to the everyone starting their own foundation thing,” said Marshall Stowell, vice president of external relations and communications at Population Services International, an organization that works with celebrities including Mandy Moore and Ashley Judd. “It’s just an exercise in inefficiency.”

He explained that celebrities should seek out groups that are already doing good work on the issues they care about. And those organizations should take full advantage of the opportunity by looking beyond the celebrity’s fame and truly engage them as a partner.

What most organizations could really use help with is fundraising, from signing a direct mail letter, to participating in a video that gets sent to potential donors, to participating in a dinner where people fork over top dollar to see the celebrity. But in certain cases, star power can drive more than donations. For example, celebrities can rally attention around an issue, then let an organization turn that interest into lasting support; in the way half of the two million people who signed up for the ONE campaign as a result of a trip Brad Pitt took to Ethiopia remained engaged with the organization.

4. Understand the commitment you are making.

Sometimes, after selecting their cause, reviewing the landscape, and doing their homework,  celebrities determine they must launch a foundation to fill a void.

For example, the American rock band Linkin Park founded Music for Relief, an organization that brings the music community together to raise awareness and funds, in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. “We were thinking it might be a cool opportunity to try and unite the music community, musicians and fans and professionals behind the scenes, and really make a difference through a collaborative effort,” bassist Dave “Phoenix” Farrell told Devex.

The experts who spoke with Devex said starting a foundation can provide celebrities with a platform for their activism, signal their commitment to the cause, and raise their credibility among global development professionals. 

Wyclef Jean’s Yéle Haiti raised $1 million in 24 hours when the rapper asked Twitter followers to text donations. But the defunct charity, which collapsed after mishandling funds intended for Haiti relief, is an example of what can happen when celebrities fail to acknowledge the responsibility that comes with power.

Starting a foundation is a complicated undertaking, from raising money to making grants to lobbying for policy change to covering administrative costs to answering to board members to evaluating impact. The Lance Armstrong Foundation is just one example of how charities founded by celebrities can be impacted by the public image of the star both in good times and in bad.

5. Prioritize local needs over public image.

Consultants who work with clients used to having the red carpet rolled out for them shared the following advice:

• Do not go off message when an NGO with limited resources is putting you at the center of its campaign.

• Ask yourself what value you are adding when you know the concern is that you might simplify complex issues, overshadow grassroots work, or divert resources and attention from more effective uses.

• Look beyond your own self interest, and the good press that could come of this, and consider both the positive and negative implications of your involvement.

• And make sure you meet and hear from the people you are supposedly trying to help, because they did not ask for you to be their spokesperson, they cannot do anything to pull you off that platform, and the worst thing you can do is misrepresent their interests.

Development professionals working to improve the lives of the majority of Malawians living on less than $1 a day cringe at words like these from Madonna in a 2010 television interview: “On one hand, I went to Malawi and I thought, I have to help. I have to save these people … And then I thought, Wait a minute, I think it’s the other way around. I think they might be saving me.”

While most of the foreign aid community acknowledges that celebrities have the power to engage new and diverse audiences, hence the reason for the United Nations leveraging celebrity Goodwill Ambassadors like Jolie, their involvement does not come without concern.

Madonna’s abandoned plans for a $15 million boarding school for girls in Malawi, like Oprah’s $40 million leadership academy for girls in South Africa, confirm the criticisms that celebrities can be highly problematic partners in global development when they put public image ahead of local needs.

By keeping these factors in mind, celebrities who want to tie themselves to worthwhile causes will find eager partners in the global development community.

Devex Professional Membership means access to the latest buzz, innovations, and lifestyle tips for development, health, sustainability and humanitarian professionals like you.  

Our mission is to do more good for more people.  If you think the right information can make a difference, we invite you to join us by making a small investment in Professional Membership.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.