Lights, Camera, Philanthropy
A close-up on giving and the entertainment industry.
When you think of charity and the entertainment business, what likely comes to mind is a movie star or musician having their photo taken at an upscale fundraising event. But that picture misses the bigger story—and the larger potential—of entertainment philanthropy.
Case in point: Filmmaker George Lucas recently gave $25 million to build an arts center for a private grade school and high school on the University of Chicago campus. This is just one example of the extraordinary generosity coming from a multitude of celebrities. And star-powered giving is just the tip of the iceberg. “Giving back” in the entertainment industry often includes important initiatives from players extending far beyond the red carpets.
However, the potential for entertainment philanthropy to help create solutions for many of our world’s challenges could be even greater.
For most of our 40-year history, we at Southern California Grantmakers (SCG) have focused on advancing the impact of what some call “traditional philanthropy”—primarily foundations and corporate giving programs such as the Annenberg Foundation, United Way, and Bank of America. We are where these leading philanthropic entities come to learn, connect, and share best practices with each other.
But from where SCG sits in Los Angeles—at the crossroads of entertainment and philanthropy—we’ve noticed that philanthropy in the entertainment world is often fragmented. It’s not unusual for a sports celebrity to give back to his or her hometown, or for a local movie studio to make multiple grants in the neighborhoods surrounding its front gate. But at professional gatherings and Hollywood events, we are hearing more discussion about how entertainment can engage in new ways to make a greater impact on the world.
SCG recently retained researchers to interview 40 stakeholders across the entertainment industry, including studio executives, high-profile talent, sports figures, and advisors. Significantly, the research findings confirmed a serious interest among entertainment professionals—including behind-the-scenes executives and off-screen talent—to collaborate for positive social change, both with one another and with “traditional” philanthropists.
So what stands in the way? One problem is that there’s a perceived risk to a celebrity who affiliates with a particular cause or organization—in the event of negative publicity around that organization, the celebrity may get drawn in. The same is true in reverse: Philanthropic organizations and causes are leery of less-than-flattering celebrity stories reflecting poorly on their work.
Another issue is that many philanthropic organizations purposefully try to avoid recognition, sometimes because of a certain ethos of humility. Foundation executives in particular may be sensitive to any appearance of spotlight seeking, often feeling they haven’t made enough of a difference. Plus, visibility can lead to a deluge of requests for support from other potential grantees.
Despite these anti-publicity instincts, there are definitely situations where traditional philanthropy could benefit from adopting the entertainment industry’s practice of leveraging celebrity status to package, market, and sell a product or service. In this case, “selling” could mean mobilizing a movement for social change or raising thousands of small donations on behalf of a good cause.
What strengths do the more-traditional philanthropic organizations bring to the table? Foundations excel at developing, implementing, and evaluating innovative strategies for impact. Prospective entertainment philanthropists could further distinguish their “brand”—and achieve much greater impact—by applying what the longstanding leaders of philanthropy have already learned.
Producer Scott Budnick provides a powerful example of an entertainment professional who has partnered successfully with philanthropy—including our organization. At a recent SCG event, Budnick spoke about his experience as a founder of the community-based nonprofit Anti-Recidivism Coalition. He is personally very active in its work and has received significant backing from traditional philanthropy. Budnick has leveraged his platform as a celebrity to spotlight this important issue, resulting in the successful passage of a law that gives juvenile offenders the right to parole after 15 years. His efforts will impact some 6,000 young people and offers a textbook case study of successfully bridging these two worlds.
At SCG, we see growing enthusiasm for leveraging the combined power of entertainment and philanthropy to scale successful models like Budnick’s. A new generation of entertainment philanthropists—including the Dr. Phil Foundation, Jane Seymour’s Open Hearts Foundation, and the David Lynch Foundation—are gathering to learn from, connect to, and share with our more traditional leaders so that everyone can achieve greater impact.
By developing entertainment industry relationships, the philanthropic sector can potentially reach out to fan bases that are millions strong. A celebrity affiliation brings a built-in public platform—a megaphone for awareness that many nonprofits and foundations can only dream of. The entertainment “wow” factor can extend to the general public, academia, politics, and beyond.
Moving forward, I see tremendous opportunities for these two worlds to connect—building strong, mutually beneficial partnerships that will improve the lives of those in our communities who need us most.