Niche biz aims to focus celebs' efforts

With the next Congress poised to be defined by gridlock, a host of issues championed by Hollywood politicos will likely be stalled: the environment, immigration, even foreign aid, to name just a few.

But the industry’s most devoted activists have for some time been developing ever-more sophisticated strategies for their causes, ones not so dependent on the publicity or political possibilities of testifying before a congressional committee.

A kind of cottage industry has been developing, with advisers who specialize in crafting the best ways for high-profile figures to pursue their philanthropic ambitions in a field that is undeniably altruistic but also fraught with public suspicion, Washington skepticism and a few political land mines.

“The Republican House is going to create a need for a shift in strategy for high-profile philanthropists, not just in the entertainment industry,” says adviser Trevor Neilson. “But every issue is different.”

Neilson, his wife Maggie, and Ann Kelly are partners in Global Philanthropy Group, which has carved out a niche representing industry clients and their philanthropic pursuits. Their roster of nearly two-dozen clients includes Brad Pitt, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Jim Carrey, Shakira, John Legend and Ben Stiller, and they have been growing since they moved their operations from Seattle to Santa Monica a little more than a year ago.

Among other endeavors, they’ve advised Pitt in his development of the Make It Right Foundation, which is building homes in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward; the initiatives by Kutcher and Moore to highlight the problems of human trafficking; and Legend’s efforts to spur education reform in poor areas of the U.S.

They create gameplans for their clients, especially those trying to get their start, but their pitch also is the ability to connect clients with D.C. figures and navigate the political terrain, as well as linking them with other nonprofits.

Neilson, for instance, accompanied Pitt on his swing through Capitol Hill and the White House last year to boost federal government interest in Make It Right’s work. The visit included a meeting with President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan. Make It Right was part of a New Orleans consortium that won a grant for stimulus dollars, and Neilson says there is “no question that (Pitt’s D.C. visit) brought a level of visibility to the application.”

Other firms also are dedicated to advising high-profile individuals, and some of the major talent agencies dedicate staff to advising clients on causes. Superstar figures like Barbra Streisand and the Dreamworks trio of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen have long retained individual political and philanthropic advisers on their staffs. But with 12 employees, Global Philanthropy Group is one of the larger — if not these largest — firms specializing in advising industry clients.

The Neilsons and Kelly have backgrounds in philanthropy and politics, albeit primarily outside of Hollywood. Trevor Neilson, for instance, worked as director of public affairs and special projects for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and in the White House during the Clinton administration.

The cost of their services vary, depending on a client’s needs, and Trevor Neilson admits that “it is a commitment to hire us. We are not cheap.”

A big part of their initial work is setting up a multiyear strategy for clients, which often has more to do with more effective use of celebs’ time than their money.

Legend, for instance, had been doing work on civil rights and social justice issues in Africa, but found that he wanted to work on an issue domestically. He tapped Global Philanthropy to help him, and they even examined his Twitter feed to discern his passion for education reform.

Maggie Neilson says many clients come to them having “lent their name to a few things but frustrated or uncertain as to whether it is amounting to anything.” Others just need to focus, given the demands from all sorts of orgs to turn out for charity events. “For a lot of our clients, their most scarce resource is time, and you have to be very careful in how you use it,” Kelly says.

They say they have declined work from potential clients who don’t have the time commitment or, as Trevor Neilson says, are more intent on publicity. Among them was a rapper, who they did not want to name, whose rep called for help in softening his image. “If your goal is to change your image, you should get a good PR firm,” says Trevor Neilson.

Global Philanthropy has been advising some young Hollywood figures for free, as Neilson says that newer talent is anxious to get involved in issues earlier in their careers. Among them is Olivia Wilde, who is on the board of Artists for Peace and Justice, the global poverty org founded in 2009 by Paul Haggis and friends that is directing efforts at rebuilding schools and providing relief in Haiti. She says that “the role models in Hollywood are not the ones turning up their noses on action and participation.”

They’ve helped Wilde partner with other orgs, as well as maximize her impact in drawing attention in social media. That can prove especially important when it comes to raising money and drawing legitimacy to a cause.

“The world is flooded with (non-governmental organizations), and donors are very discerning,” says Wilde, who returned from a trip to Haiti last week. “They can sniff out people who are very sincere about their causes and those who are just attaching their names for a publicity opportunity or political move.”

She adds, “It’s important to understand that politics are inevitably connected to any cause that you are passionate about, but it’s also important to note that much of the work will be done outside of Washington and in the country of origin.”

The changed dynamics of D.C. probably make it doubtful that the next Congress will increase appropriations for such things as foreign aid, so many activists are going to have to come up with more creative ways to further their causes. Or figures like Legend can highlight the fact that his position on education reform falls more in line with “Waiting for Superman” than teachers unions, even a more conservative approach.

“Certain opportunities may actually increase,” Trevor Neilson says. “It will depend on the issue and how it is framed to government officials.”

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