Philanthropy: The New Hollywood Brand

Nothing says you’ve made it quite like leaving your name on a good cause

The charity banquet season hits its peak at this time of year, and the crowded ballrooms remind us that there are people in town who worry less about making money than giving it away. They have reason to worry; philanthropy has become a perilous and competitive business.

David Geffen’s decision to donate $25 million for a David Geffen Theater at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures means that virtually every institution in Los Angeles has a David Geffen something. No one else matches Geffen’s philanthropic ubiquity, but almost every star these days has his or her own foundation, from Kobe Bryant to Ben Stiller.

The major talent agencies each have specialists in what they call “philanthropy branding” — an intimidating term in itself. Some stars like Sean Penn and Angelina Jolie talk more about what they’re giving than who they’re playing. Bono is no longer a performer, he’s a cause.

And the fund-raisers are hip to the opportunity. Every nook and cranny of a new museum or arts edifice carries the name of a donor.

Naming rights at the planned Academy museum (scheduled to open in 2017) are being offered for the Film History Gallery (that will cost you $20 million), the Founders Room ($5 million) or the green room adjacent to Geffen’s theater (a mere $2.5 million).

Traditional philanthropy has always involved art museums — think Eli Broad — but all that is beginning to seem dated. George Clooney supports Darfur, Penn underwrites Haiti. Bill Gates seems to underwrite everywhere else.

Some social-minded corporate CEOs want to change the laws to permit establishment of “benefit corporations” that would contribute 20% or more of after-tax profits directly to philanthropy. Blake Jones, CEO of a Colorado solar energy company, for example, wants to use his corporate profits to build a children’s museum.

Then there’s Mark Zuckerberg, who is channeling millions into a form of political philanthropy. He and some fellow Silicon Valley moguls have launched Fwd.us, which will subsidize and lobby for immigration reform, scientific research and higher educational standards (but got into hot water with environmentalists earlier in the month for an ad that supported oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). Zuckerberg recently donated $100 million to the Newark New Jersey public school system to help underprivileged kids. At the other end of the scale is 26-year old Chase Adam, the nerd who founded Watsi, an example of micro-philanthopy. Adam’s crowdfunding website lets folks donate as little as $5, which goes to medical patients in Third World countries.

In general, today’s entrepreneurs are exponentially more generous in giving than are second- or third-generation heirs to great fortunes, according to studies cited by Zoltan J. Acs, author of “Why Philanthropy Matters.” But another new book by Ken Stern, “With Charity for All,” sends up warning signals about charity hustlers. Stern, a former CEO of National Public Radio, cites one firefighters’ charity that was sued by the state of California for spending only 3% of its funds on actual programs (the rest went to overhead) and warns about celebrity-funded charities that supposedly drilled water wells in Third World countries but were unable to sustain them. The IRS approves 99.5% of all charitable applications, he writes, but provides no oversight, and 65% of donors fail to research the causes to which they contributed.

Major donors are wary about scams, and some are reluctant to permit use of their names even after thorough investigation. While Geffen and Sumner Redstone like to see their names on buildings (there will be a Sumner Redstone theater at the Museum of the Moving Image), the Jerry Perenchio and Kirk Kerkorian school of philanthropy specifies that donations remain anonymous. For the record, Geffen’s name now adorns the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, the Geffen Contemporary Art building at MOCA and other health and arts entities. His $25 million contribution to the Academy’s planned film museum represents the largest gift since the Acad started fundraising for its projected $300 million edifice.

Now, none of the ferocious fund-raisers from the Academy has approached me personally, but I can all but hear the pitch: “It will be good for your philanthropy branding image,” the fundraisers will say. They’re probably right. I remember one star telling me he’d once been told that he could have naming rights of a urinal at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., but he politely declined. Seems he couldn’t quite get into the philanthropic flow.

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