The tough-as-nails side of talent agencies gets satirized on “Entourage,” but tenpercenteries are learning to channel the ambition and competitiveness of their personnel into successful philanthropic efforts. And it’s more than just writing checks. Agencies are taking a strategic approach to activism, educating staff and clients on the optimal way to pursue that commitment to making a difference. Inhouse foundation personnel match these determined, assertive types — who are used to making things happen — with deserving orgs.
But it can be tricky. While individuals might champion a political cause, huggable nonprofits seem to get the lions’ share of attention; political candidates and causes that are remotely controversial, like antiwar efforts and nuclear disarmament, are not found in the corporate lexicon. We look at the status of the majors’ ops.
CAA’s 10-year-old foundation focuses on education-related projects in each of the cities in which it has outlets: Los Angeles, New York and Nashville. Michelle Kydd Lee heads the nonprofit that also promotes philanthropic activities by clients.
“As our agents’ relationships throughout the industry create work and opportunities for clients, that same model applies to the foundation for social issues,” Lee explains. She helped link Angelina Jolie with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which has aided the cause’s appearance on the world stage.
“We do it because we should,” declares Endeavor partner Richard Weitz, who also serves as chairman of Endeavor’s 5-year-old foundation. “We do it because we’re fortunate to have access and it’s the right thing to do,” continues Weitz regarding the agency’s support and mentorship of arts and children’s orgs.
The foundation provides grants, volunteers manpower and organizational support such as leadership training. Beneficiaries include the Gotham-based Global Action Project (advancing young filmmakers) and Wonder of Reading (helps fund public school libraries).
Incorporated this year, ICM’s official foundation formalizes the process established by 30 years of charitable giving. A longtime supporter of the Motion Picture & TV Fund and the Motion Picture & TV Home, ICM also matches employee contributions to orgs such as the Red Cross and Unicef. Although the agency does not officially advise clients on causes, it will often assist their efforts, backing such orgs as For the Arts, adopted by Mel Gibson, that boosts arts education in Santa Monica and Malibu school districts.
“(We) have buy-in at every level of the agency,” says Rene Jones, UTA Foundation’s director. “Everyone gets it,” says Jones of the foundation’s efforts — whether that comes in the form of payroll deductions earmarked for donations, food and clothing drives or summer interns spending a day helping restore wetlands.
The UTA Foundation was established in part to further connectivity to charities and as a structure for taking advantage of “sweat equity” and hands-on volunteer efforts. Additionally, Jones and the foundation serve as matchmakers, connecting clients to causes. “I feel strongly that it has to be a good fit, that their heart has to be in it,” Jones says.
The Abe and Frances Lastfogel Foundation of the William Morris Agency
Since 1972, the Lastfogel Foundation has served as the agency’s charitable arm, but the agency’s good works date further back. Partner Abe Lastfogel is credited with helping found the USO in 1941; he also helped client Danny Thomas launch St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in 1962.
WMA’s long philanthroppic history got a boost when agency topper Jim Wiatt lead a change at the agency’s foundation. In April, Leslie Thurman was brought in to head the foundation, and new initiatives are pending. “In recent years, our company’s success, coupled with the realities of catastrophic events around the world, have prompted our employees to focus even more on how we can better serve our communities,” says Wiatt.