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Celebrity Philanthropy – What’s Behind the Flashbulbs?

Is Angeline Jolie the world’s most famous socially conscious celebrity? Or is Being Human more popular? And the real question – have Jolie’s or Salman Khan’s endorsements changed the lives of refugees or the poor? We’re fascinated by celebrities and their lives, sometimes even against our better judgement. (No fingers pointed here!) In this age of PR machinery, celebrities recast their public images to respond to public demand. This holds true specially in the case of celebrity philanthropy.

  • Donating designer clothes to charity? Check.
  • Portion of every match winnings donated to charity? Check.

Showcasing one’s compassionate side is a great way to grab eyeballs and retain positive public opinion. Occasionally one encounters celebrities who misuse these opportunities to generate goodwill for themselves. The engagement with the cause is minimal, choice of NGO is questionable, and it seems that the only true beneficiary is the celebrity.

There are several ways through which celebrities engage with charities. Some successfully leverage their fame to bring money and influence to causes in dire need. Others are simply orchestrated events. We show you how and where celebrities choose their charitable footprint!

Direct Donations

Celebrities are not averse to writing out cheques for generous amounts – a recent example is Nana Patekar. Encouraged by a friend to see the ground reality in Vidarbha, Patekar visited areas affected by high incidence of farmer suicides. He was extremely moved by the plight of the widows, and began distributing cheques to those who are in debt. It’s been reported that his foundation collected Rs80 lakh within a day of setting up an account. Vivek Oberoi is another star known to support multiple causes through his personal foundation. In 2011, Forbes reported that Oberoi had donated $3 million of his own money to various causes through his Yashodhara Oberoi Foundation. He also convinced corporate sponsors to support various projects at the NGOs he is involved with.

Those who watched All India Bakchod (AIB)’s Roast with Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor would remember that proceeds from ticket sales would be donated to charity. The amount was reported to be close to Rs40 lakh, and the benefiting charities included Vogue Foundation (selected by Ranveer Singh) and Being Human Foundation (selected by Karan Johar). As Karan Johar said, “even my choice of charity is cliched”. A witty dig indeed, as it underscores the fact that charity amongst celebrities can often be a case of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’. The results are money in the bank for the NGO, while offering a painless route for the celebrity to be charitable without stretching his/her reputation too thin.

Other examples you may have heard of: Shabana Azmi and Mijwan, an NGO in Uttar Pradesh she is associated with. Akshay ‘Khiladi’ Kumar, whose father was a wrestler, contributed Rs50 lakh to sponsor expenses of five struggling professional wrestlers, though the action star prefers not to talk about his donations.

‘Social’ Awareness

There’s no power like star power. Brand experts will tell you that stars’ presence and social media influence can be worth more than their money. One of stars’ favoured ways to stand behind a cause is to lend their name (or face, or voice!) to a pre-designed cause or campaign. In marketing terms, the multiplier effect created by those social-media savvy influencers is enormous.

This includes non-monetary support like tweeting or linking to a charity’s Facebook page. Five stand-up comedians including Pretentious Movie Review’s Kanan Gill and Biswa Kalyan Rath shot a video of them attempting to entertain schoolchildren with their jokes. The humorous video shows the otherwise popular comedians failing to impress school kids with their jokes. It wasn’t a fundraising campaign though – the goal was to spread awareness about Teach for India’s recruitment drive for their fellowship campaign. Given that these comedians have a fan following amongst 18-25 year olds, which is the group Teach for India is targeting, it’s a win-win situation.

This partnership goes deeper than direct donations, and is a perfect fit when there is a strong alignment between the star and the cause. Celebrities like Shahid Kapur, Sunny Leone, John Abraham, Celina Jaitley and others have willingly posed for People for Ethical Treatment of Animals’ campaigns on vegetarianism, banning product testing on animals and other causes that are close to their heart. Of course, this can also backfire as it did with Naomi Campbell. Campbell shot a PETA campaign against fur in 1994, only to pose in high-end designer furs a decade later. She remained unrepentant about her change in stance in spite of the outrage she faced.

When executed well, stars toplining causes, and not charities, lends legitimacy to topics that people otherwise consider unworthy of discussion. Amitabh Bachchan has been the voice of government polio campaigns for years now. He took up a tuberculosis awareness drive for the government after suffering from the illness himself. His TB awareness ad campaigns reach millions of homes in rural and urban India, creating a win-win situation for message, messenger and medium. Few stars have the appeal that Amitabh Bachchan does, and his gravitas (combined with strong messaging) drives home the truth about TB.

Aamir Khan, who has been known to push the envelope with his work, deserves a special mention here for Satyamev Jayate. The show focused on a variety of issues affecting modern-day India, but focused on solutions as well. The topics had a pan-India focus which appealed to viewers all over the country. At the same time, the high quality production value ensured that it did not become a dull or preachy discussion. It provided a much-needed alternative to the dominant discourse on Indian society, and raised multiple crores for various charities. It remains one of the best case studies of a celebrity leveraging his star power to bring attention to a cause.

The flipside of this kind of promotion is, of course, the fact that as the celebrity’s star falls, so does that of the charity tied to it. Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor and seven-time Tour de France winner (who later admitted to doping) has been accused of a conflict of interest when it came to his non-profit Livestrong. A New York Times research piece points out that Armstrong sold the rights to its name ‘Livestrong’ to a for-profit organisation, spent $964,000 on digital marketing for the NGO’s work and entered into several deals that raised questions of conflict of interest between Armstrong’s commercial interests and that of the non-profit. What’s more, there can be attempts to manipulate goodwill generated by the non-profit to excuse other misdemeanours. Armstrong’s lawyers, and in India, Salman Khan’s lawyers have been known to play up their charitable work to appeal for leniency in their respective court cases.

Through platforms

Celebrities here tend to found organisations and then act as ambassadors to help with fundraising. Hollywood A-lister Matt Damon co-founded Water.org, an organisation that provides solutions to people facing water scarcity. Working with communities in Africa and Asia for twenty years, Water.org has pioneered concepts like WaterCredit – micro-loans that let people borrow money to meet their water supply needs.

Kunal Kapoor (star of Rang De Basanti) co-founded crowdsourcing platform Ketto, that has since gone on to raise over Rs50 crore for multiple charities. When the celebrities come, their fans follow. During the earthquake in Nepal, celebrities like Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Bachchan, Arjun Kapoor and Nargis Fakhri supported fundraising campaigns on Ketto, and encouraged their fans to donate.

What happens when you follow a celebrity cause without understanding the claims they are making? “We don’t want your money, we want your voice”, said Bob Geldof, organiser of the famous Live Aid music concerts for charity. Charismatic celebrities are able to garner mass support from people for ideas they know little about. U2 singer Bono is a great example of a celebrity who uses his star standing to influence fans, corporations and governments to support his causes. Detractors say Bono’s philanthropy is more flash than substance as it raises little money for actual charities. This can be explained by the fact that Bono co-founded ONE and RED, both of which work as high-level advocacy and fundraising organisations rather than grant-making charities. He actively exhorts his fans (even in the middle of concerts!) to text or vote in support of his charities who often do not fully understand what cause they are supporting. However, U2’s decision to move for-profit businesses out of Ireland to avoid paying corporate taxes while telling foreign governments to increase taxes and spend the inflow on aid work has received criticism.

Through their own foundations

Those with bigger bucks to spare, and long-term plans in mind set up a Foundation. Their philanthropy is planned, extends beyond tweeting, signing cheques or taking pictures with beneficiaries. In India, the best known is Salman Khan’s Being Human Foundation, though the Hurun list of India’s most charitable rich claims that Shah Rukh Khan spent more on charity than Salman Khan. Deepika Padukone went public with her struggles with depression, and also recently launched her Live Love Laugh Foundation to spread information about depression, and how to address it.

Others like Rahul Bose and Gul Panag (who are known for their philanthropic bent) have set up charitable organisations that reflect their own priorities. Bose has set up ‘The Foundation’, an organisation that sponsors quality education for tsunami-affected children living on the Andaman and Nicobar islands.  Gul Panag has ventured into the volunteering space, creating a platform that enables individuals to volunteer with reliable NGOs and earn credits for their time. This helps celebrities adopt a long-term view and consolidate financial and social support to their charity.

Conclusion

Having a celebrity backer who is genuinely interested in your cause is a great way to generate publicity and funds. However, if you have been supporting a cause only because your favourite celebrity is endorsing it, do scrutinise the cause (and the celebrity!) to see if their claims check out!

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