Backlot: Good for Goodness' Sake

9:05 PM PST 11/23/2010 by Denise Abbott
Water.org
Matt Damon seeks safe water.

Maximum impact and control drive celebs to donate their time - and names - to causes

Ever wonder why there are so many celebrity-backed foundations, and why the stars attach their names rather than simply giving money and donating their time to a cause?

For most celebs, it’s a desire to leverage their fame in the most positive ways and to take on personal accountability so that money and energy are utilized efficiently. And stars understand that, beyond money, they can draw attention to an issue, particularly in the age of multiplatform media.

“Let’s face it,” says Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “nobody knew about Darfur until George Clooney got involved.”

A-list names are approached by dozens of nonprofits each year for their support, and many of them pick one or two to focus on; other celebs initiate the effort.

In 2003, Alicia Keys sought out the AIDS relief organization Keep a Child Alive after her first trip to Africa.

“I couldn’t believe the number of people I met who didn’t have access to proper AIDS drugs and how it tore apart families and left millions of orphaned children,” Keys says. “It was on that trip that I decided to dedicate myself to do everything in my power to help.”

Others take the more personal approach.

Paul Newman was the first to leverage his fame,” says Marc Pollick, president of the Giving Back Fund, a nonprofit that manages various foundations. “When shoppers see his face on a bottle of salad dressing and read on the label that 100% goes to charity, they bypass Wishbone and grab Newman’s Own.”

In handing his ownership of Newman’s Own to a foundation he set up, Newman personally gave that foundation about $120 million in 2006.

Many luminaries have lent their names and efforts to a range of causes during the past two decades.

The Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised more than $220 million since 1992 for a host of HIV/AIDS-related causes. Brad Pitt’s Make It Right campaign helped rebuild New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Sean Penn’s J/P Haitian Relief Organization is running a camp for 20,000 displaced persons in Petionville.

Stephanie Sandler, senior vp of the Giving Back Fund, says that one of the biggest motivations for celebs to personalize their efforts is control.

“A lot of times, celebrities will start their own nonprofits because they have specific programs they want to carry out, and they want to have much more control over how it’s implemented,” she says. “You can also be guaranteed that the way your name and likeness is used is going to be protected.”

Here are some other notables and the causes they’re passionate about.

Enterprise Zimbabwe
Founder: Richard Branson
Established: 2009
Zimbabwe has endured a steep drop in its gross domestic product from a peak of $13 billion to $1.8 billion; unemployment estimated at 90 percent; and a president, Robert Mugabe, who’s notorious for repression. And the former Rhodesia has struggled to draw investments and foreign aid. Through his philanthropic arm Virgin United, Virgin Group founder Branson established Enterprise Zimbabwe to help get the nation back on its feet by encouraging business investments.

HollyRod Foundation
Founders: Holly Robinson Peete and Rodney Peete
Established: 1997
A personal connection with Parkinson’s disease - Holly’s dad, The Cosby Show writer Matt Robinson, was diagnosed at age 46 - led the Peetes to start the foundation, which helps families without resources to pay for Parkinson’s care and medication. When the Peetes’ oldest son, R.J., was diagnosed with autism in 2000, the purpose of the foundation was expanded to address that disorder. Plans are in the works to create a full-service Compassionate Care Center for Autism available for needy families at little to no cost.

Leary Firefighters Foundation
Founder: Denis Leary
Established: 2000
In December 1999, more than 75 firefighters ran into an empty Worcester, Mass., warehouse that was ablaze, and six of them never came out. One of those who perished was actor Denis Leary’s cousin. His death sparked a passion in the future Rescue Me star to support the families of fallen firefighters. The foundation, created to restore Worcester’s fire department and help the 17 children left fatherless, has raised more than $10 million to help other fire departments in New York, New Orleans and Boston.

The Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation
Founder: Leeza Gibbons
Established: 2002
Gibbons knows firsthand the challenges of taking care of a sick relative: She and other family members took care of her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother for a decade. That experience led to the creation of the foundation and, a year later, its signature program, Leeza’s Place, which offers caregivers coaching, resources and connections. “We believe no caregiver should ever feel alone,” Gibbons says. “Reaching out, getting support and getting coached makes this difficult journey a little easier. We created the world we wish we’d had during our struggle.”

Rachael’s Rescue
Founder: Rachael Ray
Established: 2008
The TV host, author and animal lover connected with Ainsworth Pet Nutrition to create Rachael Ray Nutrish and Just 6, a line of superpremium dog food and canine treats. All of her profits from sales are donated to organizations devoted to assisting animals in jeopardy through rescue, adoption, medical care and educational programs. This month, Rachael’s Rescue gave $775,000 to support charities and shelters that help animals in need, bringing the total donated to more than $1.4 million.

Water.org
Founder: Matt Damon and Gary White
Established: 2009
Last year, Damon’s H20 Africa Foundation - begun after his 2007 visit to Zambia and South Africa for the making of the documentary Running the Sahara - merged with WaterPartners, two nonprofits dedicated to providing access to safe water and sanitation. Water.org aims to draw attention to and raise funds for high-quality, sustainable water projects in developing countries and to inspire people to act by giving and volunteering.

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