Cause-ploitation, cause-lebrity, “charity” events, re-inventing the wheel, and all that jazz…

By Kristen Irving

For the last 5 years I have been part of this fascinating intersection between nonprofit, entertainment, media, and now tech. This world, somewhat unique to the LA cause scene, where the lines between celebrity, politician (has anyone else noticed bow obsessed they are with one another?) and activist are often blurry, where nonprofits are often as possessive of their celebrity friends as they are of their donor email addresses, and where more funds are often poured in to the next gala than are put toward programs in any given quarter (but don’t worry, they were earmarked for that event). Today I will focus only on part 1 of the above, the part about celebrities being involved in those causes that are…near and dear to our hearts.

This world I refer to is one where you can forecast celebrity cause trends more clearly than Dallas Raines can inform me of what to expect in tomorrow’s weather. When I first entered this world HIV/AIDS in Africa was the hit. Quickly the Green movement took Hollywood by storm, and now, much to my liking, Human Trafficking is topping the charts! The trickle-down effect of these industry cause-movements is much like this brilliant scene in The Devil Wears Prada:

Yes, I am very clearly relating Anne Hathaway’s perceived freedom in choosing to wear her hideous blue sweater to the concern we often have for certain causes above others.

Being the diligent person I am, I recently spent several minutes (did you catch that? don’t worry, I was already very well acquainted with the org) browsing the site of a familiar nonprofit prior to meeting with them, only to stumble across the familiar face of a very high profile musician who is one of the nonprofit’s main celebrity endorsers. I recall being in the room a few years ago when the decision was made to link this person to the org. He was in the business for a nonprofit, wasn’t even in the room when the decision was made by his “team”, yet he has been responsible for reforming much of this organization’s image, and for helping them garner the mass support of people like you and me. We all commit hours of our lives volunteering because we like the sound of his voice and the look of his face. We may have even signed up after attending one of his concerts!

Bring it home, Kristen, we get it…

This is not to say that we don’t care about HIV/AIDS in Africa, Green living, or Human Trafficking, this is merely an observation based on experience. This is also not to say that celebrities don’t have a role in the cause space, because they absolutely do! They do because many of us wouldn’t otherwise care (oh yes, don’t think you are getting off the hook), and because well…if you have the attention of the world, why not use it for good, right? It would seem almost irresponsible not to.

This is to say that we should consider the “why” behind those causes and organizations we invest in, either with time or money.

A very good example of a celebrity who uses her influence for good is Jamie Lee Curtis. During my tenure at a talent agency’s foundation, I saw more requests come across my desk to be sent to her agent or publicist than perhaps any other celebrity. Nonprofit after nonprofit wanted to take advantage of her commitment to children’s causes. Requests varied from invitations to attend their annual galas, to lending her name to an invitation (with no concern as to whether or not she would actually be in attendance), to visiting with kids in hospitals, to taking up the role of celebrity ambassador. We always passed them along, yet she was one of the most intentional in her responses. Already committed to two children’s nonprofits in town, she would graciously decline support so she could be more effective with those things she had already dedicated herself to.

That may not seem like a big deal, but well it is, and here’s why…

In closing (so this doesn’t turn in to more of a book than a blog post), here are a few things I consider when trying to determine the legitimate, genuine commitment of certain celebs and high profile people to the causes that are…near and dear to their hearts, and mine. It tells you a lot not only about the individual, but also about the organization you may be giving your time and money to:

-what kind of image does their celebrity ambassador have (are they making headlines more for their dating life or their efforts with their cause – don’t always judge the nonprofit for this one, they probably have no control over most of it, but they do control their response to it, i.e. if a celeb makes headlines for something horrible, do they keep them on as their public face)?
-is the motivation of the celebrity’s involvement clear? does their Mom have cancer or are they from a region needing assistance, etc.? did they take a trip somewhere and get inspired?
-how active in the cause and organization is the celebrity? are they taking the trips, and committing their time as well as the money vs. just showing up at an annual event because their name is on the invitation?
-if the organization is honoring them at an event or gala, why?
-how many causes and organizations does this person support? are they committed to one, a few, or as we so affectionately referred to one celeb’s involvement in cause events, would they “attend the opening of an envelope?”
-are celebs re-inventing a wheel, starting their own Foundation when an otherwise already established organization is already tackling the problem?
-does the celebrity seem to understand the cause and issue, are they informed and have a deep sense of the problem? Can they speak to the issue and organization with depth?
-is there relevance to the individual’s involvement?

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