Elizabeth Taylor, all rounded edges and violet eyes, held the hands of children with AIDS at a point in history when such a touch was still considered courageous. She spent much of her post-cinematic life crusading for HIV/AIDS research. When she died, Democrat Jim Graham said of her charity work: "There [are]so many celebrities that get involved but never really get deeply involved. But she really did."
Within days of Taylor's death, another celebrity philanthropist - arms like anchor lines, eyes in sunglasses - found herself at the centre of a scandal: Madonna's $18-million (U.S.) charity, Raising Malawi, had failed to erect a school for girls in the African country of her adopted childrens' births. Auditors found Raising Malawi in a riot of fiscal mismanagement, citing the spending of $3.8-million on a school that doesn't exist.
The project's managers reportedly enjoyed huge salaries and pricey cars while nary a brick was laid.
"Ha! This is what happens when you put a seemingly good idea in the hands of egomaniacal celebrities," wrote a commenter on the New York Times website, just one of numerous online raspberries.
It's easy to be cynical about celebrity philanthropy when, so often, the good intentions of the rich and famous seem to go awry. According to Forbes, the Justin Timberlake Foundation spent $146,000 (U.S.) on operating costs in 2006 but distributed only $32,500. Last year, Lindsay Lohan tweeted that she had personally helped rescue 40 Indian children from child trafficking, but she wasn't actually in India at the time. Even Oprah, celebrated for well-managed, generous philanthropy, spent months tending to a rash of molestation accusations at her South African school for girls.
Such stories paint a picture of celebrities blundering like Jimmy Choo-wearing Big Foots into delicate issues, doing more harm than good. As Zambia-born economist Dambisa Moyo, author of the trade-not-aid screed Dead Aid, told Newsweek: "If there is a criticism I would level against celebrities, [it's that]they have tended to perpetuate negative stereotypes. Taking a picture with a starving African child - that doesn't help me raise an African child to believe she can be an engineer or a doctor."
Still, in the past few years, perhaps guided by the light of Bono and Brangelina's big stars, charity has become a celebrity fashion. This is preferable to the Kangol hat trend, but it's hard not to raise an eyebrow when altruism seems like another checked box on a Make-A-Star marketing plan. First a cosmetics contract, then a foundation supporting … some afterthought. This me-so-sensitive posture makes for an awkward barrage of self-promotion: "Go see Transformers 3! And support stray badgers! Thanks, Jay!"
But in their book Philanthrocapitalism, authors Matthew Bishop and Michael Green applaud "celanthropists" who use their fame to drive change in an era when cash-strapped governments are doing less for social equity and the private sector is expected to do more. The assumption behind celanthropy is that the same fit of fandom that gets people to endure The Tourist will also generate curiousity about Angelina Jolie's work as Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N. Yet it's a paradox that the very thing that makes celebrities successful charity spokespeople - their intoxicating, otherworldly status - is precisely what makes us suspicious of them: How can those who are inhuman be humanitarians? Isn't a star's every gesture in service of his stardom? In spiritual terms, charity is linked to humility, which is close to anonymity. And anonymity is the enemy of celebrity .
However, it seems that anonymity may be at odds with all charity. For nine months, researchers at Yale monitored an alumni fundraising "phone-athon" and found that, when solicitors mentioned donors might be listed in a "giving circle" or even mentioned in a newsletter, people were more inclined to give.
They concluded that social recognition motivates charitable giving, a finding in line with earlier research by other scholars suggesting people gain utility from giving in three ways: as a material benefit (perhaps a tax break, or a free pen), as a burnished social reputation or as the generator of a "warm glow." This may be called "impure altruism," but a warm glow happens to look great on a red carpet, though all of us can wear it well.
If we're all impure altruists, then maybe celebrities deserve room to use their inhuman, self-promotional powers for good. Interestingly, Madonna's recent charitable woes may ultimately benefit the impoverished country of Malawi: Instead of funding the building of a school, the money is now going to be distributed across several NGOs with up-and-running education initiatives.
This cleanly removes the ego from a project that seemed a little Oprah wannabe, but imagine the effect if one day Madonna does start that school for girls, setting her Madonna-patented ferocity and discipline to real, well-managed change, not symbolic, self-serving posturing. There's a greater good waiting if she becomes, like Liz, "deeply involved." The question is, will we, the unfamous, follow?
Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly named Dambisa Moyo. This version has been corrected.