Bill Cosby, Donald Sterling and Charities' "Nightmare" Naming-Rights Problem

Michael_Jackson_Auditorium_Split - H 2015
AP Images; AP Images; Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Michael_Jackson_Auditorium_Split - H 2015

For a few million donated dollars, celebrities can brand their names on a host of Los Angeles properties. But when those names become clouded in controversy, charities may have to backpedal.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Want to help a vital cause and see your name emblazoned on a Frank Gehry building? For a cool $15 million, you can. The Children's Institute, a 110-year-old charity that provides child-welfare services to 25,000 L.A. kids, will unveil in September the renowned architect's pro bono design for a 2-acre campus in Watts — and plans to name the campus after a donor willing to cover about 40 percent of the $35 million price tag.

While critics see the practice as preening — and warn of the downside of a close association with such ultimately disgraced donors as Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson or former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling — many fundraisers say honoring a large gift with a naming opportunity can inspire smaller donors to dig deep too. In 2009, the Children's Institute feared the recession would put the kibosh on plans for its new headquarters building on West Temple — until a $6 million naming gift from the Otis Booth Foundation spurred other donations that helped pay for the building. "These gifts are not only generous, they're generative," says Jeffrey Catania, the charity's senior vp development.

While naming opportunities have traditionally only been offered to a charity’s biggest supporters, an increasing number of groups are now pulling back the veil for everyday donors. The web page at the USC School of Cinematic Arts is typical: get a look at the freestanding bench that you could name for $3,000, or snag rights on the bistro teak table for the bargain price of $2,000.

The Motion Picture & Television Fund's Woodland Hills campus, where practically every square foot is named for a Hollywood donor, now is expanding its Alzheimer's unit with the Kirk Douglas Care Pavilion, thanks to a $15 million gift from the 98-year-old actor. But additional donors can pursue smaller naming opportunities, says MPTF Foundation CEO Ken Scherer, by "walking through" the building on the charity's website well before MPTF breaks ground next year. “We’re looking at models that are staggering in terms of having donors understand what their money can go toward,” Scherer says.

As for the risks, USC marketing professor Jeetendr Sehdev points out that rumors about Cosby's sexual conduct circulated for decades and should have been uncovered by any group thinking about accepting his money. "The charity's brand is at even higher risk than the celebrity who has been disgraced," says Sehdev. “It reflects on the operations, intentions and leadership of that organization. Why was that celebrity chosen? Was the organization just trying to play the fame game?” Organizations can retain the trust of donors by acting quickly when blindsided, Sehdev adds, as UCLA did by returning an initial payment on a $3 million gift for kidney research from Sterling. Several institutions that received gifts from Cosby have distanced themselves from the star: Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio covered up his name on signs for its communications center. Scherer calls such a situation "every organization's worst nightmare" but says it doesn't give him pause before signing naming deals. "It's the risk of accepting money and giving public recognition," he says.

An A-list celebrity can sometimes bounce back from scandal — even posthumously — and rekindle a naming opportunity. Michael Jackson, who attended Hollywood's Gardner Street Elementary School as a child, donated funds to the school when it named its auditorium for him in 1989. Jackson’s name was covered up amid child-abuse allegations in 2003. But school officials removed the plywood a year after the singer's 2009 death, when parents at a school meeting voted to let the King of Pop’s name adorn the auditorium once again.

Some philanthropy advisors say naming rights are a shortsighted way to get more money in the door. Trevor Neilson, whose Global Philanthropy Group has represented Bono, Angelina Jolie and Miley Cyrus, says such a large and public gift can create the perception that a single individual has solved the charity’s financial needs. “Ultimately the recipient is trying to seduce the donor into a larger gift,” Neilson says. “It’s a short term fundraising mindset.”

And some experts recoil at the way the practice shifts the focus from a charity’s needs to its wealthy benefactors. In a column in The Chronicle of Philanthropy in March, Pablo Eisenberg wrote wistfully about the days when buildings were named after people for what they accomplished, rather than the size of their gifts. He called the naming-rights explosion a “sad state of affairs” brought about by the “extraordinarily inflated egos of America’s growing number of multimillionaires and billionaires.”

The growing significance of naming rights was made clear in November, when Lincoln Center paid $15 million to heirs of Avery Fisher for the right to rename Avery Fisher Hall. Four months later, Lincoln Center announced a $100 million gift from David Geffen and said it would rename the hall for him. Geffen's name also is prominently featured at UCLA, where he has given $300 million to the Geffen School of Medicine and $5 million to the Geffen Playhouse. But when he and fellow DreamWorks founders Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg each pledged $30 million to MPTF, none of the three asked for naming rights, notes Scherer.

Interest in public recognition for a gift is natural, says Marc Pollick, founder of the Giving Back Fund, which manages foundations for celebrities and athletes. Only one of the 200 people with whom he has worked, Pollick notes, chose to set up their foundation anonymously. "People do like to get credit," he says.

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