\“If I could help just one child, it will have been worth it\”–This is a sentiment that celebrity philanthropists express often and emphatically. But, how many times have you heard a celebrity entrepreneur say this: \“If I could sell just one shoe, it will have been worth it\”? You cannot turn on the television or walk down the street without seeing an ad for a celebrity clothing line, fragrance, drink, or athletic shoe. When it comes to their business endeavours, celebrities think big. The fact that someone who has already reached the height of of success in their chosen profession; whether entertainment or sports; has the drive and vision to reinvent themselves as a designer, author, or real-estate mogul is no surprise. After all, it is probably, in large part, that chutzpah that got them to where they are in the first place. But, then why is it that when it comes to philanthropy, most celebrities can’t seem to think bigger than one summer camp, one charity concert, one child?
Today, the philanthropic sector has broadly acknowledged that the problems we face are too interconnected and complex for any one institution or sector to solve on its own. Confronting poverty in an increasingly globalized world–particularly as we navigate one of the most dramatic economic downturns in modern history–will require unprecedented collaboration across sectors, states, and continents. While this might sound daunting, there is great promise in the collective understanding that we can have far greater impact together than we could ever have alone. The key, these days, is defining and fulfilling your role within a problem-solving network. In addition, the rise of the internet and advent of social media have ushered in a new era of social networks; connecting people to each other and to the world in previously inconceivable ways. In this new, more networked, environment, opportunities abound for advancing causes through catalyzing widespread action and open-sourcing social change. Celebrities are uniquely positioned to play in this space as they have the ability not only to write large checks, but also to reach millions of people, and to mobilize them. But, to get to that scale, celebrities must see themselves as leaders in the business of solving social problems; and, they must learn to harness the power of their platform to drive the change that they want to see in the world. When touting the launch of a new project or product, celebrity moguls frequently emphasize their hands-on approach–from concept to packaging. They speak of putting together highly effective and thoughtful teams, of spending endless hours building their knowledge, and of working diligently to ensure the best possible end-product. And, once the product is on the market, there are television and radio appearances, social media campaigns, and billboards. When it comes to their businesses, celebrities understand that their voice and image is the most powerful tool at their disposal. Now, imagine if they approached their philanthropy with the same proficiency, artistry, and strategic focus.
To be fair, the challenge of getting celebrity philanthropy to scale cannot be met by celebrities alone. Social change organizations also suffer from a lack of imagination when it comes to working with celebrities. Too often, their best ‘ask’ is for a relatively small donation, a single public service announcement, or a piece of signed memorabilia. The field, like the celebrities themselves, must begin to reimagine the parameters of partnership. While; as with any partnership; there are certainly risks involved with building a close association with a celebrity, there is also much opportunity. The stories of celebrity adventures in philanthropy gone wrong are well-known: The athlete who started a foundation, but put $0 of his own money into it; the young starlet who used a charity for a quick reputation makeover after a stint in rehab, then promptly abandoned it; the schools in developing countries that were opened to much fanfare, only to be plagued by mismanagement and scandal. But, there are just as many stories of truly well-meaning celebrity philanthropists who would absolutely do more if more were asked of them by their partners. And, helping celebrities understand the possibilities of their reach and influence might mean deeply engaging them before the gala has been planned, or the PSA has been scripted. Through active participation at decision-making tables and on the frontlines of social change efforts, celebrities can begin to increase their fluency in the causes that they support, thus making them more effective and powerful ambassadors. Indeed, the celebrity philanthropists who have had the most success with advancing their causes have been those who are substantially involved in many aspects of the work–giving away their own money, lobbying policymakers, rallying public engagement, and showing up to work alongside direct service providers when possible.
It has been argued that a Hollywood actor can, through mobilizing networks and other influencers, have a greater impact on the lives of orphans in Haiti than the Haitian government. Here in the US, many people who increasingly get their news from entertainment sites or social media, first hear about policies that will have significant effects on their lives from the athletes and entertainers who they ‘follow’. The fact that celebrities, when working in smart ways with social change organizations, can dramatically increase awareness and therefore attract investment cannot be disputed. Now, we must work to identify what those ‘smart ways’ are. The Admiral Center, an initiative of Living Cities is focused on doing just that–Working to leverage the expertise of Living Cities and its 22 member institutions to understand how we can forge deeper, more meaningful, partnerships between celebrities and social change organizations to accelerate impactful solutions to improve the lives of low-income people in America. Because selling one shoe is just not good enough, and neither is helping one child when there is the opportunity to do so much more.