We will, we will save you!

Matchmakers hook up Hollywood luminaries with the cause of their choice -- saving the world one star at a time.


Carina Chocano
October 9, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

A few weeks ago, Paul Hewson, sporting his signature goggle glasses and slicked-back hair, staged a news conference in support of the poor nations debt relief initiative outside the Capitol with Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. Two days later, Hewson exchanged views with World Bank president James Wolfensohn (whom he called "the Elvis of economics") during a panel discussion on economic globalization. Hewson, who in real life is neither an economist nor a world leader, is better known by his stage name, Bono, and is by profession the sermonic frontman for Irish rock band U2.

Bono is part of the Jubilee 2000 and Netaid campaigns to ease the debt burdens of the world's 40 poorest countries, and he takes international policy decisions very personally. The rock star told Reuters last week that he was "encouraged by the support he had seen in Washington, but remained cautious on whether Congress would respond to the calls to appropriate the necessary funds."

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"It's hard to get people in this town to agree on anything and yet people have really come together on this," he told the news agency. "But until I see the $435 million, I'm going to be a bit skeptical."

Bono is only one of many celebrity activists using their fame to bring attention to social problems in recent years, and using social problems to bring attention to themselves. Although showbiz philanthropy is nothing new, it seems few causes cilèbres today are not celebrity causes. It's as if every star this side of "Live Aid" has become exclusively, conspicuously associated with one large-scale philanthropic mission or another. Richard Gere's emergence as the Greatest Tibetan Hero comes to mind, as do Sting as Rain Forest Man, Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin as protectors of animals and Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins as defenders of Ralph Nader.

The phenomenon is so pervasive as to raise the question, Is large-scale, high-profile social activism a latent trait in every would-be pop star and movie icon? Is the urge to rescue the Earth, the children, the whales, the natural byproduct of selling millions of records or saving the world on-screen year after year? It would appear so, given that the messianic aspirations of the entertainment elite have never been more in evidence.

But not all celebrity philanthropy is equal. Celebrity involvement in a cause can range anywhere from Paul Newman giving more than $100 million to charity to a band agreeing to perform at an event in return for first-class travel, five-star accommodations, fees, perks and publicity. It can mean Michael J. Fox successfully lobbying Congress on behalf of victims of Parkinson's disease or it can mean Barbra Streisand selling charities tickets to her concerts at a discount, so that they can scalp them for the difference.

The Smoking Gun's Celebrity Charity Review reports that Streisand's foundation, whose executive director earns $128,000, gave away $658,159 in grants and contributions in 1997. The band Aerosmith put a tax-deductible $206,500 into the Aerosmith Foundation in 1998, but made donations totaling only $6,150. A 1994 Forbes magazine article told the story of a famous soap opera star who was invited to run a celebrity marathon and "complained bitterly about the size of her free Nike warm-up suit." She apparently told the charity sponsor: "We only do this for the shoes."

But shoes notwithstanding, charity work can also help a rising star gain exposure, help a fading star raise a sagging profile or help a Hollywood supernova get his very own meeting with Congress, an audience with the pope or a televised interview with the president. And while we may never know which celebrities grew up dreaming parallel dreams of stardom and world peace, we do know that celebrity-philanthropy associations are not always spontaneous.

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In fact, the giving-back craze has reached such a fever pitch it has hatched a new subindustry: the philanthropy-celebrity matchmaker. Barry Greenberg's company, Celebrity Connection, is one of several businesses dedicated to helping entertainers and nonprofits get to know one another and arrange mutually beneficial marriages of convenience for a fee. These Hollywood yentas help ensure that no good deed goes unpublicized by introducing nonprofits to stars who support their causes.

Like everything in Hollywood, celebrity-charity matchmaking is "all about relationships," says Rita Tateel of Celebrity Source, another Los Angeles matchmaking agency. "There needed to be a vehicle to act as the liaison between matching what celebrities were into and what the causes needed. This is not the kind of business where somebody could say, 'You know what? I'm going into the celebrity matchmaking business' and, boom, you open up shop," says Tateel. "It took us years to develop the kinds of relationships where we could call a celebrity at home or at their office and say, 'Look, we've got this project, would you be interested in participating?'"

"We all think that our own personal causes and favorite causes are worthy of everybody's attention," Tateel continues. "The reality is there are only so many popular celebrities to go around, and they need to sometimes just select a specific area of interest that they're going to focus on. Otherwise, they could be doing a different charity event every night of the week."

Tateel's and Greenberg's companies, and others like them (there are half a dozen or more), keep databases of thousands of celebrity names, which they draw upon when nonprofits call with requests ranging from procuring an honorary chairperson to finding a pitchman for a public service announcement to arranging for someone famous to attend a special event. Tateel says she is most often approached by corporations and nonprofits looking for stars who might like to get involved in their charities. But occasionally, she is also contacted by celebrities shopping for causes -- preferably popular, well-publicized ones.

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In the two decades since Greenberg founded his matchmaking company, more and more up-and-coming and down-and-going entertainers have hitched their stars to the social-consciousness bandwagon; more performers than ever are lending their fame to help "brand" health, environmental and social causes. Their managers encourage the extra visibility philanthropy provides, and charities continue to believe they benefit from the exposure. And more companies are waking up to the P.R. panacea of "cause-related marketing," in which celebrities, causes and products are "bundled" to show off all three in the best light possible. Think "Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF," teen pop singer Brandy and Turner Network Television or breast-cancer research, Cindy Crawford and Revlon, and you get the idea.

"Publicists and managers have gotten a lot smarter about what charity means for rounding out the careers of the celebrities they work with," says Greenberg. "It just gives [their clients] that extra thing they can talk about in the pre-interview when they're going on the 'Tonight Show,' to keep it from being only about their next movie or television series."

While some performers stump for causes they genuinely believe in, putting large sums of money where their mouths are, others see philanthropic work as an opportunity to revive, reform or spruce up their image. Sometimes, the perks can be the most motivating aspect of doing charity work -- everybody loves a junket.

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"We'd like to think that celebrities say yes to requests from causes because they're simply altruistic and they are the kinds of celebrities that are very philanthropic by nature," says Tateel. "The reality is there are not that many celebrities who are so committed that they will do anything for that cause. There are very, very few. It's usually just the ones that either founded the cause, or they have their own foundation and such. But most celebrities, when they're doing something for a cause, they're doing it for other reasons than just the cause. They're doing it because of who else is involved, [and that person may have] asked them to do it as a personal favor, or maybe because it involves travel or perks."

"We're approached by celebrities who say, 'I'm interested in anything to do with children.' Or 'I'm interested in anything to do with the environment.' Or 'Bring me something if it specifically has to do with the homeless, but otherwise don't,'" Tateel explains. "Or sometimes a celebrity might come to us and say, 'You know what? I want to go home for Thanksgiving. Home is Baltimore. If you have anything happening charitywise in Baltimore at that time, let me know and I might do it.' But it happens more frequently that a charity's going to approach us and say, 'We need a celebrity involved with us.' Or a corporation's going to approach us and say, 'We need a charity and a celebrity involved with us.'"

It can even get so that publicists treat nonprofits as icing on their clients' cake. The head of one very well-established relief organization tells a story about getting a call from a now-famous young actor's agent.

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"About 10 years ago, I got a call from someone saying, 'I'm so-and-so's agent, and I've got him on 'The Tonight Show' tonight, and he wants to talk about the charitable work that he does. We'd like to say that he's doing stuff for you. Can we say that and I'll get a commitment from him to do something for you later?' So I said, 'Why don't you have a check from him brought over to the office before he goes and tapes the show this afternoon, and then he's more than welcome to say that he supports international relief, because it'll be true. But to have him show up at an event, where he won't even help sell tickets? No!' And the guy couldn't believe I was saying no."

Still, regardless of what a celebrity's motivation for getting involved is, matchmakers and nonprofits agree that a philanthropic organization, no matter how big, has more to gain from a famous supporter than a celebrity does from the nonprofit. In the cutthroat world of nonprofit fundraising, star endorsement is critical to visibility, and nonprofits are willing to pay for it.

According to Bennet Weiner, of the Better Business Bureau's Philanthropic Advisory Board Council, there are 715,000 tax-exempt charities in the United States, and about 30,000 or more new organizations get tax-exempt status each year. "With that continuing growth," he says, "there's a lot of competition for the charitable dollar and also a lot of competition for attention. And I think it's no mystery that organizations seek out famous names to help them achieve that." That politicians and donors are swayed by famous lobbyists and pitchmen is all but impossible to dispute.

"You don't want to be the director of the one major charity in the country that said, 'Oh, I'm not going to have a celebrity. Screw the celebrities,'" says Greenberg. "You have them, you tolerate them and you use them to the extent that you want to use them."

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But charities can sometimes be naive about the negative side of working with celebrities. For one thing, it can be expensive. It's very rare, for instance, for a celebrity to cover the expense of his or her appearance at a fundraising event. Furthermore, if a singer, say, agrees to perform for free, the nonprofit will be expected to pay the backup musicians, the lighting people, the sound people and all of the technicians, as well as cover the cost of rentals. First-class travel and accommodations are also expected to be provided by the charity. All told, a "free" celebrity performance can wind up costing $50,000. In some cases, a charity may lose money instead of raising it.

Some celebrity involvement can cost a nonprofit even more. Ed Haines of the World Literacy Crusade (a grass-roots literacy drive in Compton, Calif.) claims his organization has had "90 percent good experiences" with celebrities who participate in events for free or for reduced rates. "But some experiences that have started off as a gesture of a charitable nature become more and more expensive as time goes on, and we start spending money on things that, in our view, are not really necessary. So it cuts into the whole purpose of doing the event, which is fundraising."

"In one particular incident," he says, "we were working with an airline that was donating about $25,000 worth of tickets to bring in this performing group. And because it was an in-kind donation, there were certain requirements in terms of getting the tickets handled within a certain amount of time. The group was constantly changing the flight information, which created a major problem. Then they threatened not to come, but we'd already promoted the event. It finally worked out, but it's just the aggravation and the attitudes that you have to deal with. And also the destruction of the relationship with another supporter, the airline."

"What the organizations don't understand," Greenberg replies when asked about the expense involved in using celebrities for fundraising, "is that you must have an organization that is functioning and successful. And then you add the celebrities as a cherry on top of this sundae. You don't start out and say, 'Let's begin with a celebrity.' The organizations that I have no use for and no pity for are those organizations that are trying to succeed on the pull of a big name."

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"The large charities -- the Arthritis Foundation, the American Red Cross, Easter Seals -- they have huge budgets," Greenberg continues. "They spend millions and millions of dollars on promotion and marketing. And they know that having a celebrity or celebrities is an appropriate addition to their normal package of promotion. And we support those organizations because they know how to treat celebrities. It's not like I'm dictating the way that these celebrities need to be treated. It's just common sense -- they are coming in to add something to these organizations."

Bob Oettinger of the Celebrity Outreach Foundation (another celebrity-philanthropy matchmaking service) has had a few negative experiences with unreasonable celebrity demands and intimidated nonprofits. One time his company sent a celebrity to make an appearance for a group, "and I think he lost sight of the fact he was dealing with a charity," Oettinger says. "The limousine wasn't big enough and the room wasn't good enough and he made all these demands and was a jerk. When we found out about it, we just crossed his name off the list. We don't work with him anymore. There are people who are so taken with themselves, they expect red carpet treatment from a group that needs money and doesn't want to spend it on them."

"A lot of people in Hollywood don't live in the real world," Oettinger continues. "They're put up on pedestals; they can pay anyone they want to tell them how wonderful they are. They don't have to deal with situations because they have someone to handle it for them."

"It's very difficult," agrees Noreen Jennie of the Celebrity Endorsement Network, a company that primarily represents advertisers who want to secure celebrities for product endorsements, but sometimes gets calls from nonprofits, "because you're dealing with people who very rarely pay for their own transportation. When they go places, they're going to do a movie or a TV show or a commercial where somebody's picking up the tab. And they're used to deep pockets."

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"You'll never get them to fly coach," Jennie says. "You just won't. You might get them in a room instead of a suite. And you might get them to drive themselves. You won't get them to take a taxi. A Town Car instead of a stretch? Yeah. But then you've got some celebrities that are more difficult than others. You've got those who demand the Perrier and Dom Perignon and caviar in the room. Then there are others who say, 'I don't care, give me a bowl of fruit.'"

Jennie recalls just one time in the 20 years she's been matchmaking when an entertainer -- actress Connie Selleca -- returned her fee and asked Jennie to donate it to the organization she had helped promote.

"Every once in a while you run into somebody who makes you go 'Wow!'" Jennie says. "But for the most part, they do expect that they will be flown first class, that they'll be put up nicely and that a limousine will pick them up. It's their lifestyle; it's what they're used to. Unfortunately, we've allowed them to be spoiled like that."

"I've heard of many, many organizations," says Celebrity Source's Tateel, "who bring in a celebrity and maybe they can't pay the celebrity to come in and do an appearance, but they offer to cover all the expenses of the celebrity's first-class travel, which is great, and that's what you should do. But you need to put a limit on those expenses. And when the organizations don't put a limit on those expenses, charities could be taken advantage of."

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Not everyone agrees that ponying up for first-class travel and accommodations is something nonprofits should do, however. Richard Walden, founder of Operation U.S.A., an international relief organization that relies mainly on private donations from the entertainment sector, says his organization never pays for celebrity participation. On the contrary, entertainers who want to help out are expected to pay their own way and make a contribution to the cause. When he took a group of famous young actors on a "learning trip" to Nicaragua in the '80s, he told them they'd be asked to contribute an ambulance to a local hospital while there. Naturally, the actors were expected to pay for their own airfares and accommodations.

Despite some negative experiences, the World Literacy Crusade's Haines still feels it's important to continue to involve celebrities in fundraising events because people who may not come to an event simply because they support its particular cause will come out for a particular celebrity. And, in Haines' experience, not all celebrity involvement is self-promotional. "Our international spokesperson, Isaac Hayes, goes above and beyond the call of duty," Haines says. "He speaks at events for us at no extra cost. He handles his own accommodations and everything. He also facilitates fundraising events for us and gets other celebrities involved."

Still, Haines is wary of calls from managers and publicists looking to get their clients involved. When asked why some stars become involved in causes they may not care much about, Haines says he believes in some cases the celebrities' management has advised them that it's something they need to do for tax reasons. "Let's say, for instance, they usually receive $10,000 for an appearance, but they agree to appear for free," Haines says. "Then that's a $10,000 donation. It could also be because they are doing someone a favor or because they need to do something in that particular market anyway, so it's a free trip for them to come without paying airfare."

"What is it they're looking for?" Greenberg asks, when asked about the logic behind cash-strapped charities providing first-class travel and accommodations for wealthy stars. "They're looking for celebrated individuals. How can you be a celebrated individual if you treat the person in a subcelebrity way? It's ridiculous. If you want this person to add panache to your organization, and then you drive out there -- as well meaning as your organization may be -- and pick that person up in your '73 Cutlass, you're not keeping up the image that you're trying to convey."

"Whenever I talk to a charity about why they're asking a celebrity to do something for them," Tateel says, "putting the good value of the cause aside, they have to answer the question, 'What's in it for me?' In other words, why should the celebrity say yes, other than it's a worthy cause? If they don't have the answer to that question, they're going to have a much harder time getting a celebrity connected."

"We do a lot of celebrity golf and tennis events," Tateel says, "and other kinds of sporting events for charities. And you know what? Especially with the golf events, half the time the celebrities don't even know what the cause is. They just love to play golf. They love to play golf with all expenses paid, and to travel the world to some exotic place. For goodness' sake! They don't care what the charity is!"

By the same token, nonprofits can also be callous in their search for star endorsements. ("We've gotten calls over the years from organizations that say, 'I'd like to get a celebrity,'" says Oettinger of the Celebrity Outreach Foundation. "And I say, 'OK, what do you want them to do?' And they say, 'I don't know. We just want a celebrity.' I can't just call someone and say, 'They want a celebrity, so how'd you like to be their celebrity?'") They can also tend to favor the biggest names in the business -- sometimes rejecting generous offers from celebrities they consider less visible, scaling down their expectations as time goes on and reality sets in. ("Up until that time," Greenberg says, "everybody wants Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.")

"Charities have unrealistic expectations every day," Greenberg says. "I think I'd be able to spend most of my life playing golf if I didn't have to deal with the unrealistic expectations of charities. Not that companies don't have unrealistic expectations. They think that a celebrity [is the answer to their problems]. Especially the mom and pop charities. Those are the ones that create the greatest problems for us -- thinking, 'My niece Lucy has this growth on her leg, and we're going to form a nonprofit organization. And all I'm going to do is get a celebrity. And boy, we'll raise a lot of money.' It's never about that."

"Celebrities have been involved with charities for many, many years, starting with World War II," says Tateel. "But it didn't become hugely popular until the time of We Are the World and Hands Across America and Hands Across Africa."

In fact, many Hollywood notables have been deeply involved in social and political causes since the '20s (when movie people were not accepted by then conservative Los Angeles society, and saw politics as a means of establishing themselves and gaining legitimacy), but Tateel is referring to the highly publicized and noncontroversial Live Aid concert. The concert, which was almost single-handedly organized by musician Bob Geldof, raised about $100 million for Ethiopian famine relief. U.S.A. for Africa, a temporary band featuring Bob Dylan, Daryl Hall, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder, among others, donated the proceeds from its 1985 hit, "We Are the World," to African relief.

"When those things were happening in the early '80s," Tateel continues, "that's when everybody from the celebrity community to the charity and the corporate community started seeing the power that celebrities could bring to a project in terms of national and international exposure."

A few years earlier, Richard Walden was also made aware -- entirely by accident -- of the exposure such a project could bring to a celebrity, and of the entertainment industry's desire to be linked to good works on a grand scale.

"In 1979, we flew the first international relief into Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge was kicked out. Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards paid for the plane; it was the first plane into Cambodia and we had 200 media people wanting to go. We were only able to take nine reporters because it was a cargo plane. Later, it leaked out -- not through us -- that Julie and Blake had paid for this flight. By the time we got home, in early December, everybody in town had called Julie and Blake to congratulate them and to say, 'Why don't we do something more?'"

Walden and his organization wound up with $1 million from CBS as a fee to produce a two-hour television special that ran in February 1980. "We were not allowed to raise funds because this was a network TV show," says Walden. "They said, 'You may do it about Cambodia, you may have a backdrop with starving children if you want to and the show can be thematically linked, but it's got to be entertainment.'"

Operation U.S.A. put together a program with 30 major stars including Michael Jackson (in his first performance away from his brothers), Frank Sinatra, Julie Andrews, Jane Fonda, Ed Asner, Walter Matthau and John Ritter, and netted $1.1 million from the show. "That helped bankroll a proper relief agency and all of our Cambodia work," Walden says.

Since then, however, Walden has learned how difficult it is to keep celebrities interested in and committed to a cause. Causes go in and out of favor, and famous people tend to prefer to be linked with the most fashionable causes. Walden has found it can be difficult to compete with the "cause du jour" in a town that craves novelty.

"One friend of mine," Walden says, "a P.R. guy, told me, 'You know, you're kind of an old shoe now. There's less of a buzz around you because you're just there -- you're part of the establishment now.'"


Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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