Celebrity Philanthropy: is it simply sweat equity?

This blog was written by our intern, Zoe Dean.

The Observer Magazine on Sunday carried as its main story an interview with Trevor Neilson, founder of Global Philanthropy Group, and the man who can be credited with inspiring and organising the philanthropic giving of celebrities including Angelina Jolie, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore (at least before their acrimonious split) and US basketball and current Olympic star Kobe Bryant.

What I found particularly thought provoking was Neilson’s view that his celebrity clients’ role was not actually to give money themselves, but to use their fame to raise public awareness of a cause and so attract donations to it, something he calls ‘sweat equity’. He cites Bono as someone who doesn’t give money himself but ‘rallies public opinion and lobbies governments’. But is this the right approach? Whilst it cant be doubted that the role of celebrities in highlighting certain causes that don’t otherwise garner huge amounts of public attention is extremely important and in certain cases, such as George Clooney and the Darfur crisis, has a significant impact; I can’t help feeling that celebrities should do more than just tell the general public where to give our money.

Doing good, but could celebrities do more?

The fact is that many celebrities, particularly the kind of A-list stars that Neilson works with, aren’t just famous people, they are also High Net Worth individuals who have the funds to make a real, practical difference if they get behind a charitable cause. Most average people’s charitable giving, if they give at all, amounts to small sums given sporadically, and this is unlikely to change even when exhorted by their favourite actor or musician. Obviously it can be argued that if a large number people gave even only £5 after being told to by a celebrity, it would come to a significant amount. But it does seem unlikely, even in today’s celebrity-orientated culture, that many famous individuals have the power to effect that outcome.

It also seems to me that people are more likely to be inspired to give by someone leading by example, rather than because we have been told to. Particularly when the person doing the telling leads a demonstrably lavish lifestyle but doesn’t feel the need to give their own money to the cause. It is argued by some that, in going to the places of acute poverty and deprivation that charities campaign for, and by raising awareness, celebrities are more than ‘doing their bit’ for the cause. But then I know plenty of people who have volunteered either at home or overseas and who back up their time with a financial contribution to the charity they support. It doesn’t have to be an either/or.

Put simply, I think that  ‘sweat equity’ philanthropy sets a dangerous precedent – the best giving will be about engaging celebrities in causes close to their heart, where they can put both their money and their profile to achieve the very highest impact.

What do you think? Is it enough for celebrities to generate publicity or should they be active givers themselves? We’d love to know your views!

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