Plenty of philanthropic organizations had to change plans during the pandemic, but probably none executed a pivot on as successful and publicly visible a scale as Global Citizen’s. In the span of 13 months, the org put on no fewer than six major broadcast/webcast specials, starting with the all-star “One World: Together at Home” emanating from celebrity living rooms in April 2020 and culminating (to date) with “Vax Live” from L.A.’s SoFi Stadium this past May. Yet another special, “Global Citizen Live,” is on the docket for Sept. 26, emanating from Central Park, the Eiffel Tower and other locations around the world — a 24-hour event that CEO-founder Hugh Evans calls “the big one,” which is saying something, given the org’s recent track record.
Evans reflects on how Global Citizen sprang into action when the severity of the pandemic became apparent to everyone, and how the immediate goal of getting PPE equipment to front-line workers at risk around the world dovetailed with the org’s never-ending goal of ending extreme poverty. “Someone who saw what happened last year said to me over dinner the other night, ‘Hugh, sometimes it’s better to have no time to plan rather than have all the time for too many meetings.’ And I think there’s some truth to that, because the urgency was so immediate that we had no choice. Pulling off an event that raised $127.9 million, in three weeks?” he says, referring to the Lady Gaga-co-curated “Together at Home,” which featured performances from Taylor Swift, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and dozens more. “I mean, I don’t think there’ll be another time in my career where that happens.” Need-wise, he adds, “I pray there isn’t.”
Even before these five (soon-to-be six) prime-time specials went into production, Global Citizen became synonymous with the beginning of the livestream phenomenon as Coldplay’s Chris Martin kicked off from his living room what turned out to be more than a hundred brief, acoustic, wholly live web performances. With each of the subsequent nighttime big events — some of which have been simultaneously aired on three of the four big broadcast networks at a time, on top of cable, radio and web platforms — they’ve had at least a couple key celebrity partners. But these stars aren’t enlisted just to host, or attract other talent; they’re expected to work the phones as well as the cameras.
“With ‘One World: Together at Home’ (airing April 18, 2020), Chris Martin and Lady Gaga were the strongest allies by far,” Evans says. “As we went into ‘Global Goal: Unite for our Future’ (June 27, 2020), Dwayne Johnson as well as Miley Cyrus really stepped up to encourage world leaders to act. John Legend has been a strong ally and helped immensely for ‘The Global Citizen Prize Awards’ (Dec. 19). Alicia Keys, America Ferrera and Kerry Washington were really united together around the voting campaign that we launched just before the election (with the “Every Vote Counts” special Oct. 29). And then with ‘Vax Live’ (May 2), Selena Gomez, Prince Harry and J.Lo were extraordinary. Every time it takes a small combination of key ambassadors that are willing to work hard and creatively to encourage world leaders and call on people to act, use their name, voice and platform to do everything from drive social media to hosting round tables.
“And the cool thing about all this is there doesn’t seem to be a weariness about it. Last week, in the lead-up to what we’re doing in September, Chris Martin hosted another round table calling on corporations to step up on the issue of environmental sustainability. And he’s just so willing to lean in again.” (As are Global Citizen’s 150 or so full-time employees, whom Evans says are doing it to save the world, not for salaries he says are below what they could be making at the big media companies of the world.)
It may be a case of last event = proudest event, so Evans waxes enthusiastic about “Vax Live,” both as a return to live-live after strict quarantines as well as for the quantifiable results. “When the Foo Fighters were out there or J-Lo was there, this was an extremely emotional experience after being everyone being in lockdown,” he says. “Yes, it raised $302 million” — via attendant private lobbying; these shows are not telethons begging normal viewers for pledges — “and yes, it got 26 million vaccine doses committed. But the two things that really were fundamental was that it changed the culture around vaccine donating amongst the G20 nations, and it was incredible to see that many people physically together, fully vaccinated, after the year that everyone’s had,” with an audience comprised mostly of “the healthcare workers who are the true heroes in all of this. That was breathtaking.”
Evans points out that “before the pandemic, our Central Park shows were broadcast on MSNBC, but it was very, very linear. Our team has grown to be able to do extraordinary things in the original broadcast and streaming worlds that we weren’t able to before.” With a literally day-long Sept. 26 event that will be broadcast on multiple platforms and feature the likes of BTS, the Weeknd, Doja Cat, Lorde, Metallica, Ed Sheeran, Billie Eilish, Lizzo and dozens more, Global Citizen’s expanded vision is not a genie that’s ever going back inside the pre-pandemic bottle.