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Sir Elton John and partner David Furnish attend the 18th Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Award Party in Hollywood, March 7, 2010. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
Sir Elton John and partner David Furnish attend the 18th Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Award Party in Hollywood, March 7, 2010. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Giving Changed

For celebrity givers, it's not just about the cash Add to ...

This is part of The Globe and Mail's in-depth look at the evolution of philanthropy. Read more from the series here.

Go to Nicole Richie’s homepage and you’ll learn that she’s going to be a mentor on the new reality series Fashion Star; that she’s always loved the possibility of transformation through fashion – and that every 30 seconds, a child in Africa dies of malaria.

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“Have I got your attention?” she (or her webmaster) writes. “Okay, good.”

Today, celebrity philanthropy – or “celanthropy,” as it has been dubbed – is ubiquitous. Bono fights for Africa, Sting for the rain forest. Elton John donates his earnings to HIV/AIDS programs. Sarah McLachlan just opened a music school for inner-city students in Vancouver. The list goes on.

It’s almost become a “status symbol to have a foundation if you’re a celebrity,” says Marc Pollick, whose Giving Back Fund advises celebrity donors, and tracks celebrity giving. “It’s good for your image.”

And as celanthropy has spread, the stakes are higher for stars as well: Status depends not only giving, but on doing, on being seen rolling up your sleeves for charity.

Those in the field echo such concerns. They say there are two principal ways to judge a celebrity’s authenticity: money, and sweat equity. “The real story of celebrity philanthropy is that the vast majority of celebrities don’t really give their own money,” says Pollick.

“About 98 per cent of celebrities ... don’t make gifts to their own foundations.”

Pollick’s organization puts out a yearly Giving Back list, disclosing top celebrity donors, and he points out that by the time you get to the bottom of the Top 30, the amount donated is less than $1-million. “When you think of how many celebrities there are in the world ... and we can’t get to 30 that have given at least a million dollars?”

Just showing up at a charity event – where cameras are rolling on your good deed – doesn’t cut it, says Pollick. “That is called volunteering, not philanthropy.” Sometimes, it’s not even volunteering: Celebrities are often paid a fee.

But while many in the business agree that celebrities should be putting their money where their mouths are, some say it’s not their main role. “As with any person, having skin in the game indicates sincerity,” says Global Philanthropy Group’s Maggie Nielson, who counts Madonna among her clients. “But I also say with celebrities ... their pocketbook is not the biggest thing they bring to the table.”

Michael Bublé charms patients (and staff) at a children’s hospital. Bono flies around the world meeting with powerful leaders. Sean Penn travels to Libya and earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

“Sean Penn went to Haiti when it was falling apart and moved in,” Bill Clinton noted at a star-studded birthday fundraiser for his foundation earlier this month. “He didn’t take some highly publicized trip down there. He moved into one of those godforsaken camps ... and he lived there and organized it and tried to turn it around.”

To help non-profits make a match with celebrities, many talent agencies now have a philanthropic adviser on board, and there’s a crop of consultants in the United States who counsel celebrities on matters philanthropic.

They certainly have to watch for potential pitfalls when reaching for the stars, according to Daniel Borochoff, President of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a watchdog group that called earlier this year for the resignation of controversial Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortensen from his foundation.

“Celebrities go out of fashion,” Borochoff says. “So if you base a charity on a celebrity, it may have trouble getting support when the celebrity loses their popularity.”

Foundation governance is another major area of concern. “They have a lot of hangers-on: their entourage, family members,” he adds. “What they’ll do is ... use their charities as a make-work [project]for their families.”

The whole phenomenon has to be viewed with some skepticism, says Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. “Celebrity attachment may or may not translate into dollars,” he says. “Celebrities aren’t knights in shining armour.”

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