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Celebrity Charity - A Look Beyond the Public Image - Outside View
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Celebrity Charity - A Look Beyond the Public Image
Jan 16, 2016

Is Angeline Jolie the world's most famous socially conscious celebrity? Or is Being Human more popular? And the real question - have Jolie's or Salman Khan's endorsements changed the lives of refugees or the poor?

We're fascinated by celebrities and their lives, sometimes against our better judgement (no fingers pointed here!). In this age of PR machinery, celebrities recast their public images to respond to public demand. This holds true specially in the case of celebrity philanthropy.

  • Donating designer clothes to charity? Check.
  • Portion of every match winnings donated to charity? Check.

Showcasing one's compassionate side is a great way to grab eyeballs and retain positive public opinion. Occasionally one encounters celebrities who misuse these opportunities to generate goodwill for themselves. The engagement with the cause is minimal, the choice of NGO is questionable, and it seems that the only true beneficiary is the celebrity.

Celebrities engage with charities in a number of ways. Some successfully leverage their fame to bring money and influence to causes. Sometimes they participate in carefully orchestrated public events. Here we show you how and where celebrities choose their charitable footprint!

Direct Donations

Celebrities are not averse to writing generous cheques. A recent example is Nana Patekar. Encouraged by a friend to see the ground reality in Vidarbha, Patekar visited areas with high numbers of farmer suicides. He was extremely moved by the plight of the widows, and began distributing cheques to those in debt.

It was reported that his foundation collected Rs 80 lakh within a day of setting up an account. Vivek Oberoi is another star known to support multiple causes through his personal foundation. In 2011, Forbes reported that Oberoi had donated US$3 million of his own money to various causes through his Yashodhara Oberoi Foundation. He also convinced corporate sponsors to support various projects at the NGOs he is involved with.

Those who watched All India Bakchod (AIB)'s Roast with Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor will remember that proceeds from ticket sales were donated to charity. The amount was reported to be close to Rs 40 lakh, and the benefiting charities included Vogue Foundation (selected by Ranveer Singh) and Being Human Foundation (selected by Karan Johar).

As Karan Johar said, 'Even my choice of charity is cliched.' A witty dig indeed, as it underscores the fact that celebrity charity can often be a case of 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours'. The results are money in the bank for the NGO, while offering a painless route for the celebrity to be charitable without stretching their reputation too thin.

Other prominent examples: Shabana Azmi and Mijwan, an NGO in Uttar Pradesh she is associated with. Akshay 'Khiladi' Kumar, whose father was a wrestler, contributed Rs 50 lakh to sponsor expenses of five struggling professional wrestlers, though the action star prefers not to talk about his donations.

'Social' Awareness

There's no power like star power. Brand experts will tell you that a star's presence and social media influence can be worth more than their money. So Celebrities will lend their name (or face, or voice) to a pre-designed cause or campaign. In marketing terms, the multiplier effect created by those social-media savvy influencers is enormous.

This includes non-monetary support such as tweeting or linking to a charity's Facebook page. Five stand-up comedians including Pretentious Movie Review's Kanan Gill and Biswa Kalyan Rath shot a video of them attempting to entertain schoolchildren with their jokes. The humorous video shows the otherwise popular comedians failing to impress school kids with their jokes. It wasn't a fundraising campaign though - the goal was to spread awareness about Teach for India's recruitment drive for their fellowship campaign. Given that these comedians have a fan following among 18-25 year olds, the group Teach for India is targeting, it's a win-win situation.

This partnership goes deeper than direct donations, and is a perfect fit when there is a strong alignment between the star and the cause. Celebrities like Shahid Kapur, Sunny Leone, John Abraham, Celina Jaitley and others have willingly posed for People for Ethical Treatment of Animals' campaigns on vegetarianism, banning product testing on animals, and other causes that are close to their heart. Of course, this can also backfire as it did with Naomi Campbell. Campbell shot a PETA campaign against fur in 1994, only to pose in high-end designer furs a decade later. She remained unrepentant about her change in stance in spite of the outrage she faced.

When executed well, stars toplining causes, and not charities, lends legitimacy to topics that people otherwise consider unworthy of discussion. Amitabh Bachchan has been the voice of government polio campaigns for years now. He took up a tuberculosis awareness drive for the government after suffering from the illness himself. His TB awareness ad campaigns reach millions of homes in rural and urban India, creating a win-win situation for message, messenger, and medium. Few stars have the appeal of Amitabh Bachchan, and his gravitas (combined with strong messaging) drives home the truth about TB.

Aamir Khan, who has been known to push the envelope with his work, deserves a special mention here for Satyamev Jayate. The show focused on a variety of issues affecting modern-day India, but focused on solutions as well. The topics had a Pan-India focus that appealed to viewers across the country. At the same time, the high quality production value ensured that it did not become a dull or preachy discussion. It provided a much-needed alternative to the dominant discourse on Indian society, and raised multiple crores for various charities. It remains one of the best case studies of a celebrity leveraging his star power to bring attention to a cause.

The flipside of this kind of promotion is, of course, the fact that as the celebrity's star fades, so does that of the charity they support. Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor and seven-time Tour de France winner (who later admitted to doping) has been accused of a conflict of interest when it came to his non-profit Livestrong.

A New York Times research piece points out that Armstrong sold the rights to the name 'Livestrong' to a for-profit organisation, spent $964,000 on digital marketing for the NGO's work, and entered into several deals that raised questions of conflict of interest between Armstrong's commercial interests and that of the non-profit.

What's more, there can be attempts to manipulate goodwill generated by the non-profit to excuse other misdemeanours. Armstrong's lawyers - and in India, Salman Khan's lawyers -have been known to play up their charitable work to appeal for leniency in their respective court cases.


Celebrities here tend to found organisations and then act as ambassadors to help with fundraising. Hollywood A-lister Matt Damon co-founded Water.org, an organisation that provides solutions to people facing water scarcity. Working with communities in Africa and Asia for twenty years, Water.org has pioneered concepts like WaterCredit - micro-loans that let people borrow money to meet their water supply needs.

Kunal Kapoor (star of Rang De Basanti) co-founded crowdsourcing platform Ketto, that has since gone on to raise over Rs 50 crore for multiple charities. Wherever he celebrities go, their fans follow. During the earthquake in Nepal, celebrities like Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Bachchan, Arjun Kapoor, and Nargis Fakhri supported fundraising campaigns for Ketto and encouraged their fans to donate.

What happens when you follow a celebrity cause without understanding the claims they are making? 'We don't want your money, we want your voice,' said Bob Geldof, organiser of the famous Live Aid music concerts for charity.

Charismatic celebrities are able to garner mass support from people for ideas they know little about. U2 singer Bono is a great example of a celebrity who uses his stardom to influence fans, corporations, and governments to support his causes. Detractors say Bono's philanthropy is more flash than substance as it raises little money for actual charities. This can be explained by the fact that Bono co-founded ONE and RED, both of which work as high-level advocacy and fundraising organisations rather than grant-making charities. He actively exhorts his fans (even in the middle of concerts!) to text or vote in support of his charities. The fans often do not fully understand what causes they are supporting. U2's decision to move for-profit businesses out of Ireland to avoid paying corporate taxes while telling foreign governments to increase taxes and spend the inflow on aid work has received criticism.

Their Own Foundations

Those with bigger bucks to spare, and long-term plans in mind, set up a foundation. Their philanthropy is planned, extends beyond tweeting, signing cheques, and taking pictures with beneficiaries. In India, the best known is Salman Khan's Being Human Foundation, though the Hurun list of India's most charitable rich claims that Shah Rukh Khan spent more on charity than Salman Khan. Deepika Padukone went public with her struggles with depression and recently launched her Live Love Laugh Foundation to spread information about depression and how to address it.

Others like Rahul Bose and Gul Panag (who are known for their philanthropic bent) have set up charitable organisations that reflect their own priorities. Bose has set up The Foundation, an organisation that sponsors quality education for tsunami-affected children living on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Gul Panag has ventured into the volunteering space, creating a platform that enables individuals to volunteer with reliable NGOs and earn credits for their time. This helps celebrities adopt a long-term view and consolidate financial and social support for their charity.


Having a celebrity backer who is genuinely interested in your cause is a great way to generate publicity and funds. However, if you have been supporting a cause only because your favourite celebrity is endorsing it, do scrutinise the cause (and the celebrity!) to see if their claims check out.

www.HelpYourNGO.com seeks to increase transparency in the social sector and promote philanthropy. Donors can use HelpYourNGO to make an informed decision by accessing NGO financials and comparing data across multiple parameters.

This piece first appeared on the HelpYourNGO Knowledge Centre Blog on 23 November, 2015. Follow the HelpYourNGO Knowledge Centre Blog to stay updated on all the trends in the world of philanthropy.

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