THE BLOG

Big Money, Big Names & Charity: An Unhealthy Mix?

06/01/2015 06:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

I have been asking for money for my entire career. Some call it selling a cause, some call it raising funds, some call it finding kindred souls that care about the same things you do and helping them match their money with their passion. I have filled out the mountains of paperwork required to get a government grant, written probably hundreds of proposals to foundations, secured corporate partnerships, and asked millionaires for money.

Some of it is tedious, some stressful, some uncomfortable, some downright ugly -- all of it is in stark contrast to the purpose for which you are raising the money. While you sit in a private club on the Upper East Side eating four-course lunches, sipping expensive wine, and making small talk with women wearing diamonds the size of gumballs -- you keep your mind focused on that small child that held your hand. You remember the look in her eyes, the skin rash on her face, the dust on her fingers, the torn shirt on her frail body and the lack of shoes on her feet. You remember her mother who stood nearby watching, and you think "there but for the grace of God go I". And then you turn to your dining companion to discuss how lovely her designer dress is or how fresh the Branzino tastes.

But when does the wining and dining become unbearable and unethical? When does that fuzzy line become so clear that you want to walk or even run away? In a world that is driven by celebrity -- where fifteen minutes turns into reality television shows -- the wealthy are not immune to the desire to "be seen" with the famous. Charitable organizations have sometimes become a vehicle to rub elbows, gain status and feed the celebrity addiction of some 'one-percenters'.

The wealthy don't need celebrities -- they can easily finance their own movies, music videos, or even Broadway plays with no more effort than the average American buying a new outfit. Yet, their attraction to the famous is insatiable. Some fundraising events are organized in the Hamptons and at country clubs where no funds are raised because the real purpose is to show that they have celebs in their inner circle. Donating, or even the promise to donate, to the celebrity's organization gives the wealthy direct access and influence and keeps the carrot dangling.

Celebrities, particularly the b-rated celebrities need the attention, the connections and the money. As much as wealthy businessmen like to show their clients that they know beautiful, young, famous women, some celebrities need to know that they can get the smart, successful, and powerful to pay attention to them. These people become gateways for career opportunities and cheerleaders for their egos.

This all too often results in a feedback loop where decision-making within an organization becomes focused on one person's brand and celebrity charity events become Oscar-esque occasions -- several outfit changes, entire days spent picking out the perfect napkins, no cost spared to get beautiful centerpieces. Egos are fed by the "big gets" -- honorees must be big names no matter the cost of their involvement, billionaires are comped tickets so that they will attend, and famous faces must be photographed on the red carpet -- all of which overshadow the fact that these events are meant to raise money for people who lack water, shelter and food.

Why is this important? So what -- the rich and beautiful want to hang out together? Because this unhealthy pastime trumps oversight and efficiency in many celebrity organizations to whom the general public give donations. The drive to be near the famous doesn't stop at the donor table, it often carries over to the Board of Director's table. And if your goal is to be close enough to smell fame, you are less likely to ask questions that governing boards are legally required to ask.

Charities have a special legal tax status because they are to play an imperative role in society which often can not be fulfilled through other means. In essence, charity helps people who need help -- period. They are not -- and should never be -- the branding and marketing machine behind a celeb-du-jour, they should not be the playground on which the wealthy can hang out with the popular, and they should not be the event committee that uses public donations to put on a big party where this elite group simply pats one another on the back while flashing on screen occasional pictures of poor children.

A study done in 2013 by professors at Rutgers School of Business - Camden suggests that having an association with a celebrity helps organizations increase funds raised via the public. Just because there is a familiar face attached to an organization, and you might like his or her acting skills or athletic ability, does not mean that this is the most effective or efficient organization. Nor does this mean that all celebrity organizations are poorly run. But, when buying a new computer or television, you do research. You seek the opinion of others. You check out Consumer Reports. You don't just buy the computer or television that looks the most appealing. When selecting a charity to whom to donate -- do the same. In fact, do more because quite frankly it is more important to get it right. There are very good oversight organizations and watchdogs, like Charity Navigator and GuideStar, to help you. Charity is an essential part of the global fabric and many organizations do amazing work. Support them and support that little child that held my hand.