Founded 25 years ago, the CAA Foundation was the first philanthropic arm of a major Hollywood talent agency, created with the pointed mission of leveraging the power and reach of high-profile individuals in the entertainment, media and sports industries to bring about positive systemic change.
“It started in 1995 with a very specific idea about what our company should stand for,” says CAA president Richard Lovett, who helped create the foundation. “We wanted to do something that we didn’t see much around in those days, which was to make certain that our platform was going to be used to distribute positive things in the world to the public good. We knew that we could serve our clients and amplify the work of our clients as they pursued philanthropic work or supported causes that were meaningful to them. We also felt that the agency itself was this powerful platform, where we had unique access to the world. We knew that we had a group of individuals that would be excited and moved by this prospect, by participating in great positive things out there.”
With efforts largely focused on civic engagement, public education, workforce development and crisis relief — desperately needed during the era of COVID-19 — the CAA Foundation has continued to grow and evolve over the past quarter-century, expanding into a robust organization run by individuals drawing on their experience in the entertainment business space to driving forth positive social messaging.
Among the foundation’s social-action initiatives: Civic Alliance, a membership of more than 200 companies, including Starbucks, McDonald’s and Patagonia, working to secure fair democratic elections; I Am a Voter campaign, a nonpartisan movement encouraging active participation in the democratic process; and CAA Amplify, a series of town halls bringing together leading voices in politics, entertainment and media.
“My favorite memory is attending the first Amplify conference we put together,” says CAA Foundation executive Callie Rivers. “Looking around the room and seeing high-level execs and talent in entertainment and social justice and seeing my own and many others communities represented all in one place was a dream. I felt that there was a unique power to change the world in that room.”
“For me, the most memorable moment was seeing Billy Porter deliver a speech on voting rights, equality, racial justice and LGBTQ rights from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial,” adds CAA Foundation executive Adam Umhoefer, who heads up the I Am a Voter campaign.
Serving underprivileged youth has been a substantial part of CAA Foundation’s focus. Five years ago, the foundation launched Camp CAA in Los Angeles and later in in New York, providing low-income students a chance to go to summer camp for free, experienc the great outdoors and the benefits of fresh air and nature where they hadn’t before had an opportunity because it was cost prohibitive.
“The work that we do at the CAA Foundation is really part of a core element of our DNA,” says Lovett. “It’s a defining characteristic of who we are.”
To that end, in 2002 the foundation launched the CAA Task Force, comprising emerging leaders within the company who spearhead various fundraising and community activities in CAA’s satellite offices around the world: Los Angeles, New York, Nashville and London. The 2019 CAA Task Force Young Parties raised more than $420,000 for partner organizations. Over the past 10 years, the task force has raised $4.5 million for such organizations as Communities in Schools of Los Angeles and Planned Parenthood.
“One of the things that has differentiated us from the very beginning is that nobody had charitable foundations in the entertainment community — it just didn’t exist,” says Michelle Kydd Lee, CAA Foundation co-founder, CEO and agency board member. “People bought tickets to charitable events, but there was literally no one who was making this a focus and an active and working department with people who were doing this full time as their full time job. We were creating something from scratch, and that was a really exciting and entrepreneurial time. We approach this as our collective mission. There is now and always has been a real vision, and that vision needs to be executed.”
That vision has never been more crucial than this past year, as COVID-19 reared its thorny head. In March, CAA Foundation worked in tandem with Thrive Global and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health to establish the First Responders First campaign, raising more than $10 million for COVID-19 frontlines workers. Of that amount, the initiative has donated $2 million for PPE, served more than 40,000 meals, provided 7,227 days of childcare to 292 families in eight states; and provided 7,913 days of free hotel accommodations to 582 first responders.
“One of the things that’s been invigorating for me being here for 25 years is that because CAA is at the center of the zeitgeist of what’s happening in popular culture, in policy and in social justice and in social work, we get to bring all of our expertise to the work that we do,” Lee says. “We’re the rocket fuel for the people doing great things out there in the communities.”
Among those great things is the foundation’s tradition of sending young volunteers to communities in need around the world — from New Orleans, to Haiti, Tuscaloosa and the Rockaways in Queens.
“In 2010, all the trainees around the world traveled to Nashville after the floods to help our neighbors rebuild the city,” says Natalie Tran, CAA Foundation executive director. “We visited our partner school and cleaned out classrooms, visited our non-profit partners and helped coordinate a fundraiser called Nashville Rising. It was incredible to share this experience with my colleagues and know that it was made possible by our strong culture of service.”
But what the CAA Foundation has accomplished in the past is never as important as what comes next and to what end it can be of service, notes Lovett.
“For 25 years, we have worked to consistently and diligently promote the goodwill and beliefs of the leaders of the foundation as well as our colleagues,” he says. “After 25 years, it’s nice to look back at everything we’d done, and we do so with pride. But really what it’s about is the present and the future.”