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John Legend and Jeffrey Sachs: Philanthropy's New BFFs

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The rooftop of the private Soho House in New York's Meatpacking District is the perfect setting for a late-spring soirée: it showcases lower Manhattan's twilight glow the way few other locales can. It's no surprise, then, that singer John Legend would host a $1,000-per-ticket benefit dinner and performance for his Show Me Campaign there on May 19, or that he would fill up the seats with models Padma Lakshmi and Petra Nemcova, singer Wyclef Jean, and actor Jeffrey Wright. Yet, the event's most important guest isn't someone you'd normally see vying for a lounge chair beside this exclusive hotel pool, even though he travels the world with the likes of Bono, Angelina Jolie and Madonna: Jeffrey Sachs may be best known as an economic advisor to the stars, but the 54-year-old Columbia University professor isn't interested in hobnobbing his way into the tabloids; he's hell-bent on halving extreme poverty by 2015 -- and if another celebrity comes along for the ride, that's just fine, too.

To be fair, the association between Legend, 30, and Sachs seems genuine; in an email for this story, Sachs characterized their relationship as that of "friends and colleagues (except he sings better than I do). John is exceptionally smart, talented, and committed." One sings about making love, the other writes about making poverty history, and together, Legend and Sachs might be one of the most potent philanthropic pairings the celebrity world has seen in a few years. Why? Aside from the fact that they're both Ivy grads with prodigious talents who both achieved major success in their respective fields at a young age, neither one has an air of insolence about him. Their differences in age and (yes, even in the Obama era) skin color are welcome juxtapositions, and the fact that Legend approached Sachs because he was so moved by his 2005 New York Times bestseller, The End of Poverty, says something about the authenticity of their pairing. And, needless to say, from a marketing standpoint, putting an internationally-renowned economist with a platinum-selling soul singer is one combination that covers plenty of demographic territory.

So, what, exactly, have Legend and Sachs been up to since they met? They teamed to launch Legend's nonprofit Show Me Campaign in June 2007; they embarked on a January, 2008 "Poverty Action Tour," in which they conducted Q&A sessions at universities around the country on behalf of Sachs' nonprofit, Millennium Promise; they've appeared on MTV together, and they've had their picture made quite a bit at celeb-filled events. How did it all begin? After a visit to Ghana and Tanzania, Legend was moved to start the Show Me Campaign (named after his song, "Show Me," a conversation with God about the state of the world) as a partner organization to Sachs' Millennium Promise, which benefits more than 80 Millennium Villages in Africa -- all built upon strategies devised to carry out the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. Since 2000, the "MDGs" have become the cornerstone of the work done by many NGOs and advocacy organizations worldwide. Among those goals: to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, and combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and other diseases that keep the world's poorest billion people in the "poverty trap" of living on less than $1 per day. We're talking about a lot of work, and a lot of money.

In these tough economic times, it's hard for Americans to think about raising funds for Africa when we have hunger and homelessness in our own backyard -- and critics of celebrity philanthropy are getting louder by the minute. Portfolio magazine's May 2009 issue features an exhaustive (and more than occasionally cynical and unfair) view of Sachs' work, labeling him at turns a "card sharp," "The Willy Loman of Antipoverty Products," a "white knight do-gooder," and the "Sally Struthers of intellectuals" (referring to the latter's tearful commercials for the Christian Children's Fund in the 1970s and 1980s). And, Dambisa Moyo, author of the recent book Dead Aid, disagrees with Sachs' position about sending government aid to Africa, and told the New York Times she "objects to this situation as it is right now where [celebrities] have inadvertently or manipulatively become the spokespeople for the African continent."

The "cha-ching" of receipts from celebrity fundraisers is necessary, but it's not an evil. A philanthropist is a philanthropist, no matter the level of his fame or whether his contribution is monetary, artistic, or simply a PowerPoint grid of ideas about how to save the world. Now, more than ever before, it's important that the work of fundraising for the shaping of sustainable communities in the developing world continue, and Sachs, for one, shouldn't be attacked for sharing his wealth of knowledge with those who seek his expertise. In John Legend's case, I'd venture to say he'd be teaming with Sachs even if he'd never become a famous musician. As such is reality, though, this multiple-Grammy-winner's in the unique position of being able to summon the big bucks for an intimate rooftop show (grand piano and all), yet also rally young fans to activism. "[John] brings an enormous amount of energy, care, and ideas to the fight against poverty," Sachs writes about Legend. "And excitement. He energizes his countless fans to get involved, which they are doing in large numbers. All over the US I meet people who mention John's engagement with the Millennium Villages and the inspiration that he has given to [them]."

So, to all the naysayers who think a little cynicism can stop the "do-gooders" (and idealists and songwriters) from raising money to help people thousands of miles away, I heartily say, "Pshaw!" As for Tuesday's rooftop party in New York? Sign me up! (And feel free to put me in the lounge chair next to Sally Struthers.)