Celebrities and Charities Don't Always Mix

AIDS. World hunger. Poverty. Cancer. Natural disaster relief.

These are all issues that celebrities do charitable work for. Some celebrities are genuine in their charity work and are connected to a cause because they truly care. Some, though, are only connected to a charity for publicity. Regardless, celebrities can be a liaison between the organization and the public. Celebrities draw attention and bring in a fan base, widening awareness of the charity. At times this is positive, but it can also make the messenger more important than the message. In some instances, celebrities can cause more harm than good because of their insincere intentions or bad reputations.

It is not uncommon for a celebrity to use their status to start their own charity. Actor Michael J. Fox’s organization seeks to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease and musician Elton John’s AIDS foundation are two examples. These charities support great causes and use their star status in a positive way. Celebrities are also encouraged to meet and find common ground with each other to form charitable partnerships. Former President Bill Clinton’s philanthropy group, the Clinton Global Initiative, for example, was created to focus on important causes, such as education in the developing world, female empowerment, and climate change. The initiative prides itself on being more impactful than the Davos World Economic Forum and is modeled to bridge the divide between non-profit groups and celebrities. At CGI, celebrities support causes and use both their names and their money to fund various programs. 

Unfortunately, having a celebrity name associated with a cause doesn’t always bring positive advertising.

For Haitian pop star Wyclef Jean, it made sense to get involved in the earthquake relief efforts. While I’m sure Jean hoped to improve the conditions for the Haitians, his other reasons for making the trip to Haiti are questionable. He was working to build his image to gain Haitian backing for his political motives.

Jean announced his candidacy for president of Haiti in August 2010 and faced much scrutiny. Reports came out that Jean owed around $2 million to the IRS and even more discomforting, funds from his charity, Yele Haiti, were used for personal reasons. After becoming aware of these allegations, I would have a difficult time donating to a cause Jean supports. Jean should have used his celebrity status to become a role model and inspire people to help the Haitian cause rather than make them question where their donations really end up.

It is difficult to say what is the true motivation behind charitable celebrities, but I am willing to bet that a large amount were encouraged to by their publicist, either to create an image or bolster a torn image. In cases like these, celebrities could end up damaging the charity more than helping.

Lindsay Lohan has been in and out of court for years and doesn’t exactly give off the image of a role model, yet she has shown support for numerous organizations including PETA, Bid to Beat AIDS, and Save the Children. In her younger years, Lohan supporting these causes would have been great for the charities. However, due to her more recent run-ins with the law, Lohan should support these causes away from the press and public eye.

Yes, it can be good for an organization to have a celebrity face to get publicity, but do they really want people with reputations like Lohan’s to be this face?

Any ad campaign featuring Lohan would be difficult to take seriously. Before reading any information about the ad, I would subconsciously be deterred from continuing just because of Lohan’s numerous arrests and notorious “bad girl” image. I can’t help but think that Lohan and other celebrity “activists” with similar reputations are getting involved in charities because their image needs help.  

If a celebrity has a good reputation and pure intentions, they should be a public supporter of charities they chose. If celebrities have a bad reputation that they are aware of, they should contribute to their causes of choice, but do so out of the public eye to keep the organization away from scrutiny.

Photo Credit: christopherharte

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JoEllen Redlingshafer

I am a junior at the University of Dayton majoring in journalism and minoring in political science.

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