All in a good cause

There was an expectant hush after the hammer fell on the final auction item of last year’s ARK charity dinner in London’s Marlborough House. The auctioneer, Lord Dalmeny of Sotheby’s, unfolded a note featuring the grand total and paused for dramatic effect. After surveying the gala-friendly tuxedos and gravity-defying ball gowns of some of the world’s wealthiest people for a moment, he announced: “The total raised this evening is US$34 million…”

By Andy Round

Cheers, applause and the tinkle of expensive cutlery against expensive glass instantly drowned out his words.

This was a pre-credit-crunch world, a place where more than a thousand hedge fund managers and miscellaneous A-listers had dug seriously deep into their bespoke pockets for the global children’s charity known as Absolute Return for Kids or ARK. The auction was the richest single evening fund-raising event in history beating the previous record of US$30.5 million raised by the anti-poverty Robin Hood Foundation in New York.

The event’s success was down to the meticulous organisation of Elle MacPherson’s former boyfriend and multi-millionaire financier Arpad ‘Arki’ Busson. Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu provided personal messages, a mechanised three-storey wooden elephant stopped traffic, Bloomberg sponsored the bash and Sir Elton John provided the entertainment.

Among the ‘items for sale’ were a yoga session with Sting, auctioned for US$140,000; a guitar lesson with Coldplay’s Chris Martin followed by dinner with his wife Gwyneth Paltrow, sold for US$250,000; a Damien Hirst painting, US$600,000, and a tennis match in the South of France with Sir Elton (and his ‘devilish backhand’) for US$160,000.

The auction may have raised the equivalent of a South American country’s GDP, but it was just another example of a whole new era of giving for the world’s wealthy. In the 1980s, as Wall Street would have it, ‘greed was good’, but today – economic crisis or not – giving is better. And the fairy dust of glamour that always magically manages to prise open well-padded wallets, is the power of celebrity.

Celebrities without a shadow of a doubt have the power to bring about change, says Catherine Carnie of Cause Celeb who has joined the likes of UNICEF ambassadors Sir Roger Moore, Vanessa Redgrave, Audrey Hepburn and Harvey Keitel on publicity-raising missions to highlight the plight of some of the worse places on Earth. “Peter Ustinov once told me that when you’re paid a lot to do something you love, there’s an element of guilt,” she says. “Working for UNICEF helped make up for it.”

Of course every self-respecting millionaire A-list star has a good cause or two on their payroll. They are great for money-generating publicity for both parties. Whether you accept the cynical view or not, it’s a win-win situation for raising funds and an absolute celebrity essential.

The Tiger Woods Foundation, for example, has been raising millions for US children’s charities since 1996; Madonna has provided huge sums to healthcare organisations throughout her career; Jemima Khan donated a kiss for US$110,000 to raise money for Palestinian children; Christopher Reeve campaigned for improved spinal cord injury research and Michael J Fox fought for extra funding for Parkinson’s Disease treatment. Even a train set signed by Tom Hanks raised US$2,500 for the Sick Kids Foundation. The list is endless…

Obviously if you get a bunch of celebrities together in one place you magnify your money-raising potential enormously. We’ve come a long way since Live Aid in the 1980s. Celebrities now support events such as the UK’s Red Nose Day, Make Poverty and Fashion Targets Breast Cancer.

Recently Kate Moss, Rachel Hunter and even the Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson posed in nothing but their Jimmy Choo shoes and Cartier jewellery for a book to raise funds for AIDS foundations. Sir Elton John’s famous White Tie and Tiara Ball once raised US$8.28 million in an hour from a charity auction (dinner with Richard Gere sold for US$182,000). Among the bidders were Sharon Osbourne, Kylie Minogue, Rod Stewart, Kate Moss and James Blunt.

Celebrity support inevitably peaks during a tragedy. In 2001 more than 90 million US television viewers tuned in watch Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Meg Ryan, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks and Sylvester Stallone led appeals for donations for victims of 9/11. Meanwhile, the recent Hurricane Katrina Appeal attracted backing from celebrities as diverse as Morgan Freeman and Dennis Quaid.

Unfortunately the harsh fact of ‘regular’ charity life is that many causes cannot survive without the oxygen of celebrity endorsement. Speaking to Red
magazine, Nichola Martin, Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s celebrity manager said: “We get maximum exposure to raise more funds and create awareness and celebrities benefit by being recognised as supporting an important cause.”

The fact that there is actually a job of ‘celebrity manager’ speaks volumes about the focus of charities today. Still, if huge corporate companies can use A-listers to successfully promote products, why not good causes?

Sadly not all charities are attractive to celebrities. Africa, AIDS, deprived children, breast cancer and global poverty are always fashionable while mental health causes, drug abuse support organisations and Cystic Fibrosis research, for example, are not.

Anna Clarkson of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign says celebrity support is undoubtedly incredibly influential. However, there is a big ‘but’. “Our biggest challenge is finding celebrities that can relate to our charity,” she says. “Our profile would increase dramatically if a celebrity or one of their family, was diagnosed with a muscle condition.” That’s a truly heart-breaking reality and common to thousands of well-meaning campaigns, foundations and charities.

Clearly if celebrities simply donated a small percentage of their earnings to a portfolio of charities more people would benefit dramatically. However, they are only human. They don’t wake up in the morning like Bill Gates and think ‘today I’ll donate millions of dollars to save the world’. Your typical A-list mega star needs a little publicity prompting and if that comes in the shape of a glamorous gala dinner, auction or charity sports event, so be it.

David Gilmour, Pink Floyd’s singer and guitarist, recently offered a different perspective. Gilmour, who is worth US$140 million, donated the US$6.8 million proceeds from the sale of one of his London houses to Earl Spencer to Crisis a charity that supports the homeless. In his only interview (given to the foundation’s website) he said he felt unease at his good fortune and other people’s lack of it.

Unlike other millionaire musicians, Bono, Bob Geldof or even Sir Elton, Gilmour has always refused to make public declarations about his charitable donations in the mainstream media. His philosophy is simple. “I have a bugbear that there’s a lot of conscience salving that goes on with putting on charitable events as vanity projects,” he said at the time. “Why can’t they just write out a cheque?”

Bono Vox

Probably one of the most vocal advocates of charity, Bono has been battling to raise awareness of Africa’s debts since 1992. Culminating in the Live 8 concert in addition to many high profile political meetings, speeches and televised debates, the U2 singer was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. He has consistently lobbied the world’s politicians and recently launched Product Red partnering with the likes of Apple, Armani and American Express to raise money to fight disease in Africa.

Angelina Jolie

Associated Press reported that negotiations for pictures of Brad Pit and Angelina Jolie’s twins fetched US$14 million for charity. The images were sold to People magazine in a join deal with Hello! It’s not the first time for Bralegina. In 2005 People reportedly paid US$4 million for pictures of the couple’s daughter Shiloh. In June the couple donated US$1 million to children affected by the war in Iraq.

JK Rowling

Billionaire creator of the Harry Potter series is estimated to be worth US$1.1 billion, according to this year’s Times Rich List. She is a huge supporter of charity although her contributions are usually anonymous. However, it has been publicly disclosed that she has donated US$44 million to the UK’s Comic Relief fund as well as supporting multiple sclerosis, children’s and homeless charities. At the end of 2007, she raised US$4 million for children’s charities from the auction sale of the a hand-written copy of The Tales Of Beedle The Bard.

Warren Buffet

The second richest man in America made the biggest charitable gift in history by pledging US$31 billion of his estimated US$62 billion fortune to the foundation of his friends Bill and Melinda Gates. After he said he would ultimately give away 80 per cent of his money to charity, he added: “You always get back more than you give,” he said at the time. “I don’t have a problem with guilt about money. There’s nothing material I want very much.”

Bill Gates

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gives away at least five per cent of its assets every year to help prevent and fight diseases in the Third World. The foundation has assets worth US$28 billion and spends an estimated US$1 billion every year. Gates still maintains a non-executive position at the Microsoft company that made him one of the world’s richest men, but his full-time working life is dedicated to charity.Ends

Comments are closed.