The Celebrity Effect

Celebrities and charities go together like bread and butter. When the likes of international superstars like U2’s Bono and Justin Bieber make a donation appeal for a cause they’re championing, you can only imagine how quickly their fans would rally and lend their support. And it goes without saying what a celebrity’s alignment with a social cause can do for their reputation. Just think of Angelina Jolie who transformed from wild child to poster child for humanitarianism.

But when the reputation of the celebrity advocate takes a nosedive, it can mean serious backlash for the charity involved — or worse still, turn people off donating altogether for fear their money will never go where it was intended.

Take the recent Jimmy Savile sexual abuse allegations, which became widely publicised a year after the late DJ and television presenter’s death. Two charity trusts, which are named after him and oversee funds totaling £5.4 million (S$10.6 million) have been shut down, said a BBC report.

Following Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, the disgraced cyclist has quit as chairman of the charity foundation he began 15 years ago to “spare the organisation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding his cycling career,” according to Bloomberg. The charity, which has raised some US$500 million (S$610 million) to support cancer survivors, also formally dropped his name from its title and is now known as the Livestrong Foundation.

Alleged misuse of funds has also cast a shadow on other celebrity-driven movements. In June this year, Lady Gaga was sued US$5 million (S$6.1 million) for allegedly scamming a Japan relief charity and profiting from the sale of “We Pray for Japan” wristbands meant to raise funds for relief efforts. Hip-Hop artist Wyclef Jean was also accused of pulling a fast one on donors through his non-profit organisation, Yele Haiti, with reports of how only US$5 million of the US$16 million (S$19.4 million) collected after the Haiti earthquake went to relief efforts.

WITH GREAT PUBLICITY COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY

With the media more inclined to cover a charitable cause if there is celebrity involvement, how far should charities work their way into the realm of entertainment?

“Celebrities are helpful when it comes to raising awareness and that should continue as they do come with a certain clout and PR arsenal,” said Stephanie Yip, a public relations director. “The celebrity needs to be authentic in selecting a cause that truly speaks to his or her heart and behave responsibly when endorsing it.”

Marcia Tan, who manages Singaporean musical groups like Electrico and Budak Pantai, said: “There will always be people who question the credibility of a celeb-endorsed charity and the celebrity’s motive, but when executed properly, celebrities can really help to drive donations when they lead a campaign.”

Publicist Yvonne See, who has worked on charity projects with Mandopop singers JJ Lin and Ado, agrees the charity’s mission should be in tandem with the celebrity’s image in order to portray a convincing message to the public.

See also believes that involving artistes with more than one particular charity helps to widen their outreach and experience. “It helps artistes grow when they get a chance to interact with the less fortunate and to see who they are helping” she said. “At the end of the day, both parties have to be responsible about the cause they advocate.”

SPOTLIGHT ON THE CAUSE

But great publicity — whether done with sophistication or not — does put charities in the forefront for intense scrutiny.

Take the National Kidney Foundation Singapore (NKFS) and Ren Ci Hospital for example. Both charities, which used televised live shows where celebrities would perform daredevil stunts to garner donations, were plagued by scandals regarding corruption and financial irregularities a few years ago.

After former Ren Ci Hospital founder-chief and monk Venerable Shi Ming Yi — who had made a name for himself through his performances in these shows — was found guilty of misusing funds, it was reported that the hospital had chalked up a deficit after a plunge in donations. It subsequently ended its active fundraising and charity show.

“The availability of resources is always a challenge,” said Lincoln Sim, corporate communications manager of Ren Ci Hospital. “Inevitably, fundraising efforts and public donations are important but we also tap on various resources to meet our operating needs." The Ministry of Health (MOH) and Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) have been very supportive of the local charity healthcare sector and provide various forms of funding schemes, he added.

“We have always been committed to take good care of the needy sick and frail elderly within our community,” said Sim. “Our key focus right now is on what we can contribute to society, rather than how much we can receive from the public. With the fast ageing population, we know we have an integral role to play to help meet healthcare and social needs.”

The NKFS did not wish to comment on this issue.

While it is easy to use such high profile cases as an excuse not to offer donations, there are still avid donors who actively contribute financially to causes. One such donor, Charmaine Ho, a magazine journalist, believes that we can be optimistic despite the negativity. “I donate with the belief that I’m doing good and the view that if only $0.10 of my dollar has gone to help the needy, then at least some help has been offered,” said Ho. “Of course, that’s not to say that I’ll continue donating to a scandalous charity. I’ll just channel my money somewhere else.” Ho is a regular donor to the Home Nursing Foundation, and in addition supports a different cause each year.

“I tend to look out for charities that don’t have celebrity endorsements. This is because I figure the charity with the celebrity has all the help it needs so I’ll donate to another charity that doesn’t have that sort of publicity,” said Ho. Another avid donor, Colin Anthony, a banker, feels the same way. “The most important part is the beneficiaries of the charity — it needs to be aligned to what I view as a worthy cause.”

But can we ever really be sure of where our money is going?

“With tighter government regulations and regular audits of the industry, I think that one can donate with a peace of mind,” said Anthony.

“You can do as much research but you can never know for sure,” said Ho. “Besides, for me, donating with the concern that your money may be misappropriated goes against the whole spirit of charity in the first place.”

BE AN INFORMED DONOR

1. Do Your Research: It’s easy to get caught up with salacious headlines in the news. But make the effort to do some online research about an organisation to find out about their services and which areas are especially in need of financing.

2. Ask Questions: Check in with the Charity Council to learn more about the various charities and how to go about donating in a secure manner. For more insider information, speak to existing volunteers about the organisation and their practices.

3. Get Involved: There’s no better way to discover the inner workings of an organisation than to be a volunteer and spend time with both the beneficiaries as well as the staff.