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Unpacking the controversy around celebrity charity organisations

Committing to donating a sum of money isn’t the same as donating it directly. Acknowledging this difference can tell us a lot about how celebrities and multinational companies ‘give back’.

‘We’ve committed to donating X amount to X cause,’ is a phrase often used when celebrities and multi-national companies announce their involvement in charitable work.

And while we tend to feel that all is good and well in the world whenever our favourite celebrity or brand announces they will be offering aid to those in need, it’s worth taking a moment to unpack what exactly their announcement is saying.

When the words ‘pledging or committing to donating,’ are used, it doesn’t mean the person or organisation has already donated this amount of money from their own pockets.

All it means is that they will eventually donate this amount – once it is raised through profits made from product sales, donations collected from members of the public, or sums of money acquired through the generosity of third-party donors.

In light of Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson pledging $10 million USD for victims of the tragic Maui wildfires, many have asked why two very successful celebrities are asking the public to help them raise such a huge sum – especially when Oprah is a multi-billionaire and part-time resident of Maui herself.

Let’s delve into the controversial topic of celebrity charity work, shall we?

Criticisms of celebrity charity work

Celebrity involvement in charity has been met with frequent and intense scepticism over the last decade.

A 2014 Guardian article called celebrity charity endorsements ‘the curse of good causes,’ arguing that Hollywood stars only engage in this type of work as an ‘extension of [their] own narcissism.’

The article uses celebrities featuring in documentaries about their chosen cause to raise awareness amongst the public as an example. Though this still happens, today’s equivalent would be celebrities who highlight injustices on their social media platforms.

In the eyes of critics, celebrities involving themselves in this type of venture can be revealing of the often-fleeting nature of their concern with a specific cause. For this reason, sceptics believe we should seek guidance about charitable work from ‘professional advocates rather than wandering stars.’

While this cynical view of star-studded charity work is worth acknowledging, it’s also valid to believe that anything done by an individual that amplifies a social cause is better than the alternative – for example, a world where no celebrity ever used their platform to promote collective action or awareness.

Where things can get murky, however, is when celebrities launch charitable organisations or foundations in their own name.

Speaking to Forbes, Stephanie Sandler, the senior vice president at Giving Back Fund, a philanthropic consulting and management firm in Los Angeles, said ‘Celebrities can have the image of being charitable without necessarily giving.’

What Sandler is referring to is celebrities who put their names on foundations without offering portions of their own money into them, which does happen from time to time.‘We think it’s perpetuating a fraud upon the public,’ added Marc Pollick, who heads the consultancy firm.

In light of this,many who learned of Oprah and Johnson’s fundraiser have been inclined to feel this way. The pair’s announced that their goal is to grant all affected residents of Maui $1,200 per month to help them through the period of recovery.

And while Oprah and Johnson may be well-intentioned, a sour taste was left in the mouths of the public upon learning more.

The two stars boast a net worth of $2.5 billion and $250 million, respectively. Oprah – who owns 13 properties in Hawaii – has donated $5 million to the fund while Johnson has reportedly contributed $5 million and ‘plans to raise and donate much more.’

What has flabbergasted the public and sparked intense debate is that the pair’s current contributions represent less than 0.5 percent of their total wealth.

Perhaps it does seem a little bit cheeky to ask individuals from the general public – who are likely already pinching every penny in light of the cost-of-living crisis – to donate to a fundraiser they started themselves.


The positive takeaway

Of course, celebrities giving back through fundraisers or simply raising awareness on their social media platforms is way is better than them not giving back at all.

When celebrities use their platform to promote various causes and charities, it means that millions of people may learn about a cause they may not have known about before.

And in light of the increasingly parasocial relationships between fan bases and celebrities, it’s hard to deny that the awareness raised by stars has immense potential to spark action that will make a difference in the lives of many.

In the case of Oprah and ‘The Rock’s Maui fund, perhaps the aim was to reach their own millionaire friends and members of celebrity circles. Most of us would hate to believe that they’d look down upon regular people who are living pay check to pay check for not donating.

In the end, I’m not here to condemn celebrities’ involvement in charity, but rather to explore the complicated perspective the public has about wealthy celebrities who delve into charity work – and the numerous ways they go about it.

But it’s a tricky subject that might see most people default to feeling that at least they’re doing something, which is better than nothing.