Archive for the ‘Celebrity Philanthropy’ Category

Advice for Donors to Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute

April 26, 2011

I’ve had a lot of people asking what I think about the recent allegations against Greg Mortenson about falsified stories in his best-selling books Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, and gross mismanagement of charitable funds donated to the Central Asia Institute. What follows is purely my own opinion, but so many people have focused on whether the allegations are true or not, and I thought I would contribute some thoughts on what to DO about it.

If you haven’t followed the controversy, I’d rather not get into it here. Feel free to

In short, there are clear management challenges, at the very least.

So what’s a donor to do?

If you believe in the work being done by the Central Asia Institute, I encourage you to be patient and wait for the dust to settle. A lot more ink will be spilled before this is over and it’s hard to say what will shake out. But in any case, before donating to the Central Asia Institute again, I would want to see the following steps taken by the organization:

  1. A new CEO hired that takes over the “business” of running a $20 million/year charity while Greg pursues the mission. This is for two reasons: one, Greg has admitted that he lacks organizational skills (and even his most ardent supporters agree) and he needs someone supporting him who demonstrates those skills; and two, it shows that the board is taking these allegations seriously and that they are trying to build an organization that is larger than any one man.
  2. Additional board members appointed who can provide greater oversight and accountability. Again, this would show that the organization is taking this seriously and is dedicated to good governance. Also, the existing board members seem to lack experience in some key areas of nonprofit management. Their response so far has been defending the mission but they need to do a “mea culpa” on some of these governance and management issues if they are going to retain any credibility.
  3. Audited financials every year. A charity this large should absolutely be getting an audit every year for sure.
  4. A clear travel expense policy put into place that would govern the use of charitable funds in the field. This seems to have been handled very casually, but needs to be tightened up.
  5. A copy of the attorney’s report showing they did not engage in “excess benefit” transactions with Greg. They apparently had their attorneys investigate this issue and the attorneys found no excess benefit. Great, let us see this report. I am especially curious about this one because the charity has made statements that there was no excess benefit because CAI benefits from the speaking/book tours more than Greg does. I believe this is an inaccurate explanation of excess benefit, which does not compare the benefits accrued to the individual versus the benefits accrued to the charity, but rather compares to benefits accrued to an individual versus what is considered “reasonable.” See this explanation of excess benefit transactions especially written for non-lawyers like me.
  6. If CAI feels that Greg’s speaking appearances are a critical part of fulfilling its mission and a fantastic fundraising tool, I can understand that position (I bet a lot of organizations that raise $20 million spend $1.7 million or more in fundraising costs). However, in that case they need to adopt a new policy that all speaking fees and proceeds from events surrounding Greg and CAI are paid directly to the CAI, and Greg’s compensation comes in the form of a salary from CAI. If they need to increase his salary to be more commensurate with his value to the organization, so be it.

In conclusion, I think it’s worth pointing out that all of these suggestions merely constitute good governance. They are nothing unusual, and most charities of any significant size would already have policies and practices like this in place. To all donors, I can only reiterate that before giving to a “good cause”, you should investigate whether the program or organization in question also represents good practice.

P.S. I can’t help but wonder if some of this book tour accounting nonsense was an attempt to keep his salary artificially low as an unintended consequence of watchdog and donor insistence on low salaries at nonprofits. I can imagine supporters thinking Greg deserved to earn more for all his contributions and deciding it would be “only fair” for him to keep more proceeds from his book tour which wouldn’t raise alarms as compensation on the charity’s tax return. This organization, after all, received a 4-star rating for its financials from Charity Navigator, which speaks volumes to the limitations of ratios and, if I’m right, the perverted incentives that this rating system sets up.

Angelina Jolie and World Refugee Day

June 18, 2009

UNICEF World Refugee Day is this Saturday, June 20th. In recognition of the day, they recently produced a video featuring Angelina Jolie, one of their global ambassadors and possibly the most famous woman in the world.

According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), the video is expecting millions of views. It will be played in airports, on television and of course on YouTube. Angelina Jolie will certainly turn heads, but once they listen to the 30-second spot, what is it that UNHCR wants us to do?

“In her new video, Jolie stresses that “Refugees are the most vulnerable people on earth. Every day they are fighting to survive. They deserve our respect.” Jolie calls on the public to “remember them on this day.”

Really, that’s it? That’s the big payoff? “Remember them”? I think UNICEF has done Ms. Jolie a dis-service here by giving her pretty thin material to work with. Surely there is a more compelling call to action for people watching this video? How about “Visit our website for details on how to press for refugee rights” or “Tell your friends about the UNHCR mission,” or

…download our widgets to bring attention to this issue through your own blog or website, or

…become a fan on Facebook to receive action alerts and event invitations, or

…sign a petition telling world leaders how you feel about this issue.

…DONATE to support the work of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees

The sad thing is, UNHCR actually developed a lot of these tools, they just aren’t connected to the video with Ms. Jolie, or to the web press release on their site announcing it.  By searching Google for “World Refugee Day ’09” I found live feeds, twitter streams and badges here.

Or how about this: tell them “Don’t Give.”

This celebrity-filled video from Oakwood is everything that an appeal to the masses should be.  Take a minute to watch it and see if you can identify all the famous people…

I have to tell you I have no idea what or where Oakwood School is. And where I saw the video on YouTube there was no “Link below” to click and find out more. But the video uses humor instead of dread, inspiration instead guilt, draws out every possible excuse for not giving, and blows them up when we really examine them. And like every good fundraising appeal, it ends with a “Thank You.”

Drawing on our better selves and being inspired to make a difference, let’s do more than “Remember them.” On this World Refugee Day, let’s take action. Whether you give time or money or access some of your social networks to bring others to the cause, just give a little bit.

A sampling of actions from around the web:

Donate blog revenues from June 20th to UNHCR like Google Earth Blog

Visit the Humanitarian Relief page at and select one of the actions, like “Call on Investors to Stand Up for Human Rights in Darfur.”

Attend a World Refugee Day event hosted by the International Rescue Committee or join the IRC and Urge President Obama to Welcome Refugees.

Or check out the live video and live chat or find badges on

Wilco’s Favorite Charity: Chicago’s Own Inspiration Corporation

May 14, 2009

I’m not a fan of Wilco, at least I think I’m not.  It’s possible, if they have a song on mainstream radio, that I’ve heard it and maybe even liked it. I know this makes me unhip. To further show my musical geek-out, let me just confess that I just don’t get Adam Lambert’s screeching on American Idol.  In fact, I have a theory that Adam Lambert is actually a satirical character being played by Zac Effron in pancake make-up.  America, you’re being punk’d.

(My Chicago partner-in-crime at Foundation Source, Chris Wright, a music guru who offered to read this post before it was published–to keep me from embarrassing myself–says that Jeff Tweedy’s previous claim to greatness was his time in Uncle Tupelo and the “No Depression” album. Okay, does that redeem me? )

Anyhoo, back to Wilco in 2009. Their latest album was just leaked on the Internet. This is no surprise to the music biz, it seems to happen all the time. Personally, I prefer to hear the finished versions of songs that the artists are happy enough with to release for public consumption but I understand that some people also watch the “deleted scenes” on DVDs.  Folks, they are deleted for a reason.

In reaction to the leak, Wilco didn’t stamp its collective little feet and complain about the unfairness of file-sharing–the band even offered a link to the download on its own web site, to save you some time trying to find it.  Instead, they offered “our usual guilt abatement plan for downloaders. ”  For all you naughty MP3 pirates, “we suggest you make a donation to one of the band’s favorite charities, the Inspiration Corporation — an organization we’ve supported in the past & who are doing great work in the city of Chicago.”

I love that the band has made peace with its complete inability to force people to pay them for the music but is turning this into an opportunity to use their fame for the benefit of their favorite charity.

Inspiration Corporation

Inspiration Corporation recently got attention as part of the True North commercials aired during the 2009 Oscars.  A well-loved Chicago institution, Inspiration Corporation is perhaps best known for Inspiration Cafe, but provides a whole range of programs to assist homeless people to reach self-sufficiency, helping them with the kind of support structures so many of us take for granted, like a phone number where we can be reliably reached.

“Through its supportive services, employment, and housing programs, Inspiration Corporation assists more than 2,500 individuals and families affected by homelessness and poverty each year – serving as a catalyst for self-reliance.

Inspiration Cafe, located in Uptown, and The Living Room Cafe in Woodlawn, serve meals in a restaurant-style setting and provide supportive services in a therapeutic community designed to help individuals on their journey toward self-sufficiency;

Open Case Management offers case management, information and referral services, and direct financial support to any community members, typically to address a temporary crisis or transition. In partnership with Emergency Fund, Inspiration Corporation provides cash grants to prevent eviction and homelessness.

Cafe Too, is a culinary job-training program including an award-winning restaurant open to the public at 4715 N. Sheridan Road in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood;

The Employment Project, offers career services, employment preparation training, tuition subsidies, employer outreach, and job placement and retention services throughout Chicago;

Community Voice Mail, offers free, 24-hour voice mail service for phoneless, homeless and low-income individuals enabling them to connect with family, employers, housing and service providers;

The Engagement Center, provides daytime social services, laundry, showers and bag lunches in a warm and safe environment;

Housing Services, offers a housing locator, rent subsidies and social services to help individuals and families find and maintain permanent housing.

Tip o’ the hat to Wilco for going beyond its checkbook to help a cause it cares about, and also using its fame and access to a loyal fan base to generate support and hopefully connect some folks with the mission of a fantastic nonprofit.

Thanks to @jefftrexler for pointing me to this story, and to the story for pointing me to the proper links.

Celebrity Fundraisers

August 28, 2008

Many charities would like to inject some glamour or get some extra media attention for their fundraising event. Enter celebrities. For good or bad, they continue to headline the big events and be the most visible charity supporters.

Some celebrities (and, of course, non-celebrities) seem to regard charity fundraisers as nothing more than an excuse to hold a big party without all the guilt that inconveniently accompanies conspicuous consumption.  Others are clearly committed and genuine.

To paraphrase Hilary Clinton: are you in it for the celebrity? Or are you in it for the cause?

I’ve always thought it would be fun to combine the glitz of a celebrity event with a pared-down, work-a-day reality of most organizations in the sector.  So have people pay $500 a plate to eat hot dogs and potato chips while wearing black tie attire.  Maybe use a prom theme, with crepe paper decorations and a cheesy-fun theme like “I”ll stop the world and melt with you” for a nonprofit fighting global warming.  Have the nonprofit staff “spike” the punch instead of an open bar.

This kind of approach might work especially well if you’re targeting the two groups that Stephanie Sandler of the Giving Back Fund says are the most influenced by celebrity involvement: young people and sports fans.

Proceed Cautiously

Before giving you some resources to actually reach out to celebrities, I feel compelled to make sure you’ve considered carefully whether it’s the right thing for your organization.  I think there’s some danger in making a celebrity headliner the focus of your fundraising event.  It may draw some short-term attention but not much follow-up, from either the celebrity or the people who came to gawk at someone (semi-)famous. Maybe that’s fine, but just consider your long-term strategy to develop sustainable support and consider a celebrity fundraiser just one tactic.

I’m also always cautious of charitable causes being used to “greenwash” or otherwise gloss over problems of people and organizations.  I think I’ve told you how, when I wrote to him protesting his acceptance of campaign contributions from a company I found objectionable, my congressman pointed to the company’s charitable donations.  Ick.

If you’ve thought about it and you’re sure you want a celebrity presence at your next event, then I won’t stop you.  Read on for some resources on how to make it happen.


If you decide you want a celebrity to contribute to your cause in some way, here are some key tips from experts that I’ve heard repeated many places (Including the Chronicle discussion cited below).

  • You might want approach some “local” celebrities–cuz George Clooney has lots of offers, but the local DJ, columnist or news anchor, minor league team, artist or author may connect with your cause and be a far more active supporter. Check out this short piece from Fundraiser Insight for ideas on how to showcase local celebrities’ time and talent in your fundraisers.
  • Make it easy for them to get involved by being well-organized and having a plan.
  • Give them several levels of involvement to choose from.
  • Start small and develop a relationship before asking them to be the national face of your organization.
  • The Chronicle of Philanthropyjust hosted an online conversation with some celebrity-affiliated fundraisers and they gave great advice on how to approach celebrities to support your cause, and how to make the relationship successful on both sides.  You can find the transcript here.
  • One of the panelists in that Chronicle discussion is from, which chronicles and celebrates the charitable involvement of celebrities.  This site is fantastically useful because it can help you search by cause, research what celebrities have supported in the past, and see other celebrities who support the same causes.
  • If you just want autographed memorabilia for an auction or thank-you gift to volunteers, try searching for a specific celebrity at  This site includes free access to known addresses that are useful for requesting autographs and other low-threshold items.  Fans seem to keep the addresses updated by providing dates and details of “successful asks.” The instructions give guidance on how to maximize your chances for success.

Thanks to the Chronicle of Philanthropy and Peter Panapeto for the idea for this post, which came from Peter Tweeting about the panel on Tuesday.  You can follow the Chronicle on Twitter by clicking

Top 5 Celebrities Using their Fame for Good

August 9, 2008

I almost never forward stuff.  But Rich Krasney had brought to my attention the fabulous video “Where the Hell is Matt?” on YouTube and I was in love.  I actually forwarded the link to my friends and family and demanded they watch it, assuring them (and you): it’s safe for work viewing. I even made someone who worked for me come into my office and watch it, which I know is obnoxious and cruel because he can’t really tell me to buzz off, but I couldn’t help it.  It’s that great. 

So how excited was I to find that Matt Harding, the videogame programmer turned world-famous awkward dancer, is using his travels and his fame to raise money to buy laptops for children and then plans to go to Rwanda to teach them (thanks to Howard Lake for this tip-off). You can follow Matt at

In honor of Matt,  I’m compiling a list of the people who have done the most good for the world using the attention they received for other reasons. Being a philanthropic advisor, my list leans heavily toward those who inspire others to philanthropy, I acknowledge others may be accomplishing greater results with their direct action. This list is about leverage.

  1. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.  She used to be considered a crazy, possibly incestuous oddball.  He guest-starred on Jackass (I know because I watched that show.  Now you know too much about me).  They have now done more to bring attention to the global poverty and health issues, and the ongoing plight of New Orleans, than any government agency or nonprofit ever could.  People flock to their movies and they continually command the world stage, as much for their family and philanthropy as for their acting.  And their money is where their mouths are.  I won’t hear a single word against them.
  2. Bill Clinton. The Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting draws committed philanthropists and passionate activists. Everyone there makes a public commitment about what they are going to do to make the world better.  The next year, if they haven’t made good, they can’t come back.  Recent additions to the Clinton Foundation list of programs include CGI U, for bringing the next generation of social leaders together, and the Millenium Network, for young professionals.  Politics aside, he’s bringing together people who don’t just talk, they ACT.
  3. Bono.  I seem to recall various studies that show some embarrasing percentage of Americans can’t find South Africa, or even the continent of Africa, on a map.  Thanks to Bono and his (RED) campaign, and his collaborations with celebrity pals, the marketing power of some of the world’s largest companies is being used to tell the developed world about the problems of Africa.  I believe in the promise of (RED): that teenagers made aware today become active tomorrow.  Does buying stuff solve the world’s problems?  No.  People do.  But before people will act, you have to let them know about the problem.  Bono is a rock star. 
  4. Oprah Winfrey. There was a lot of whining among philanthropy professionals about how “The Big Give” made it look “too easy.”  I thought those folks completely missed the boat: the point is to make it look easy, because the point is to get people to think of themselves as philanthropists and to look for everyday opportunities to practice “random acts of kindness.”  If Oprah featured a regular philanthropy guru on her daily show (a Nate Berkus or a Dr. Phil of doing good), she’d be number one on this list. 
  5. Princes Will and Harry. I was too young to understand the Princess Diana thing.  But her sons move me and make me focus on the better half of the Jekyl and Heidi personality of “the people’s princess.”  I loved their charity concert last year, and Prince Harry in particular has carried on an enormous dedication to Sentebale, the charity he founded to build schools in Africa.  Check out the MSNBC story on his work here. Given the British obsession with the royals, I guarantee these young men are setting an example for their entire generation across the pond.

Honorable Mention: Jet Li.  I read an article recently where Jet Li, who has the title role in the just-released Mummy III, spent his interview talking about his philanthropy rather than his acting.  He was just more excited about the philanthropy.  A huge star with enormous range in Asia, he’s a major inspiration and has the potential to be a rallying point for Asian philanthropy.

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“Hairdressers Unlocking Hope”

July 13, 2008

A few weeks ago I was on a JetBlue flight back to New York from San Francisco.  It’s a long flight, and they have that in-flight TV on the headrest in front of you.  I didn’t want to watch Wimbledon and ended up on Bravo, watching a marathon of “Shear Genius,” which is like Project Runway for hairstylists. 

One show they had Vidal Sassoon as a guest judge. Rather than hawk his salon or his styling products, Vidal used his appearance to promote his charity Hairdressers Unlocking Hope, which he formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

He’s teamed up with Habitat for Humanity, one of my favorite charities, to rebuild homes in Louisiana.  Hairdressers Unlocking Hope has raised over $2 million from the hairdresser community.

The reason I love this project is because Vidal Sassoon is not necessarily someone that you or I rally around, not someone that gets the mainstream media attention of Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” Foundation.  But he is a superstar demi-god in the hairdresser community (the stylists on Shear Genius certainly were slack-jawed at the sight of him).  And he was very wise to aim his efforts and his leadership at a group of willing followers.

P.S. A new season of Shear Genius is on Bravo at 10pm ET Wednesday nights.  Charlie rocks.


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