Hollywood's favorite charities

Leading industryites discuss the nonprofits that are near and dear to their hearts

Robert Friedman, co-chairman and CEO, Summit Entertainment
Special Olympics

Founded 40 years ago by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics is an international organization that helps people with intellectual disabilities and conducts the Special Olympics World Games every two years.

"I grew up in a really small town in North Carolina, and one of the neighborhood kids had Down syndrome, and he was one of our crew: He would hang with us, and we would protect him. So I grew up with that in my formative years.

"Then, coincidentally, in 1978, we (Friedman was then an executive with Warner Bros.) did the first "Superman" premiere -- a presidential premiere for Jimmy Carter, to benefit Special Olympics -- and I met the whole Shriver clan, and I've been involved ever since. About 12 years ago, the Southern California Special Olympics was re-formed, and Maria Shriver asked if I'd be on the board. I said yes immediately.

"Special Olympics is the largest athletic organization in the world. The World Summer Games just occurred in China in October 2007, and the World Winter Games will be 2009 in Boise, Idaho. It's important because it offers all people with intellectual disabilities a place where they can socialize, be physically fit and build self-confidence and self-worth. These athletes have such an amazing love of life; there's nothing evil or bad in any of these people.

"(As for the young man with Down syndrome), I went back and saw him about 10 or 15 years ago with my older brother. He recognized him more than me, but it was wonderful to see him. He was in his 50s at that time and living with his mom. We hugged and reminisced. He died about three years later."

Dustin Hoffman, actor
Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times

The organization operates free summer and winter camps for cancer-stricken children.

"My wife has a cousin, Pepper Abrams, and when 'Tootsie' came out (in 1982), we got together and had dinner, and she was very frustrated because she had a son who was 6, David, and he had leukemia and she couldn't get him into camp because camps couldn't insure kids with devastating diseases. She said, 'I'd love to start a camp for kids with cancer that looks like a regular camp but has all the needed things in case there's an emergency.'
"And so we did it. Because 'Tootsie' was a big success, I was able to have funds for it; then we got some other people involved. There's a photo of the ones who started the camp -- there's a line of us: Me and O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson and Richard Chamberlain. It was the four of us that gave money to it.

"It was the first camp for kids with cancer. Later, McDonald's came along and put up money. Paul Newman had been thinking of doing the same thing. He came to us and involved himself and then went on to create his own very similar one, the Hole in the Wall Gang. But he had access to much more money!"   

Alan Horn, president and COO, Warner Bros.
The Natural Resources Defense Council

The NRDC is a New York-based environmental advocacy group with 1.2 million members and a staff of some 300 scientists, attorneys and other specialists that lobbies Congress for a public policy that promotes conservation of the environment.

"When we had a child, my wife said, 'What kind of world are we bringing our children into?' That was 20 years ago. She said, 'I'm concerned about the quality of the planet environmentally.' That's what got me interested in the environment and led to the formation of the Environmental Media Assn. Then I was introduced to the NRDC by (restaurateur) Peter Morton.

"The NRDC incorporates the twin disciplines of science and law into environmental activism. I like that scientists come up with the facts surrounding a situation and their lawyers press those facts for legislation, either lobbying members of Congress or taking on polluters by suing them. They have a broad canvas and talk about air and water and species preservation; they're involved in climate change and have an advisory group working in China.

"The L.A. office recently won a case to stop the Navy from using sonar apparatus, which was destroying marine life. The NRDC made them modify it in a way that would be less harmful. And they're lobbying to have less dependence on coal-fired energy plants -- there are about three new coal-fired plants that come into being each week and that means 12 million tons of CO2 from each one per year.

"I like what the NRDC does: I like the factual strength from the science and the power of the lawyers to take on both the polluters and to work with the government to achieve legislation, because ultimately it's legislation that will mandate change."

Jane Kaczmarek, actress
Clothes Off Our Back

The foundation auctions clothing worn by celebrities and uses the money to help children's charities like the Smile Train (which repairs the cleft palates of Third World kids) and the
Children's Defense Fund.

"My husband, Brad Whitford, and I are both from Wisconsin, and we were overwhelmed by how much free stuff they give you when you're in the public eye -- evening gowns and tuxedos and purses. The gowns are usually given back to the designers and are 'archived,' as they say. We thought, it's such a shame that they don't do anything with them again.

"In 2002, we decided to ask people if we could take the clothes they wore at the Emmys that year, and we sold them using an online auction service. I did it out of my bedroom! I'd get on the phone and call people. We thought we'd just do it for the Emmys, because that's the world we knew, but then a few years later the (Dec. 26, 2004) tsunami happened around the time of the Golden Globes, and it became year-round. We have sponsors now; we've raised over $2 million for children's charities.

"We sold the dress Jennifer Aniston wore when she won the Emmy in 2002, a vintage Dior, for $50,000 and took ads out in the trades where we said, 'Fifty thousand children in Africa were immunized (against measles) when she let us sell her dress.' This year we had the beautiful green dress that Keira Knightley wore in 'Atonement,' which sold for $35,000.

"I'm a closet housekeeper. I steam the dresses and wrap them in tissue paper and put the boxes together.

"What we're doing in our careers is all well and fine, but there's no greater feeling than writing a check to these charities. No evening gown, no handbag feels as good as knowing you're changing the life of a child."

Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO, DreamWorks Animation
The Motion Picture & Television Fund

The fund offers assistance and care to industry members without resources. It also operates
the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital and health centers in and around Los Angeles.

"(MCA chairman) Lew Wasserman approached me 15 years ago and quite literally took me by the hand out to the Motion Picture Country House and shared with me both the history of the place and what his hope and ambition were for the future, and asked if I would get involved. When I visited it and saw the work they were doing, I found it undeniably important, very moving and very touching.

"That brings me to why it's at the top of my list of the charities that my wife and I support. It's simply this: I've been one of the luckiest people in the movie industry in the last 30 years, and it has given so much to me and to my family, probably more than we deserve. It seems so correct that we should turn around and try to be there for the people that are at the other end of it, people who have fallen on hard times, people who haven't had the rewards but have worked in this industry. In the greater karma of life, those who have the most should be taking care of those who have the least and that is what the fund is for.

"The fund has grown significantly in the last 15 years and most of all in the work it does in the social services. A perfect example of that is during the writers strike, when we were fulfilling financial requests at the rate of 200 people a week, which is eight times what we are doing on a regular basis. The number of requests for financial assistance went up 800% toward the end of the strike, and the average request was for $2,000 -- which tells you everything you need to know about how hand to mouth people were living. The fact that we could be there for those people is what the fund is about, and frankly I would like to see it become even more about that in the future: providing social services for people who need help."

Tom Sherak, principal, Revolution Consulting Services
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society of Southern California

The Southern California chapter raises money to help support local residents who suffer from MS, a debilitating autoimmune disease, and also raises funds for the National MS Society.

"Seventeen years ago, my daughter Melissa was diagnosed at the age of 18 with multiple sclerosis, which was a very early age to be diagnosed with this disease. She was having a numbness in her arm, and that numbness went down her body to her leg and then into her optic nerve. We took her from doctor to doctor, trying to find out what it was. At the time, doctors didn't want to give you the moniker of having MS, because then it was very difficult to get insurance. But eventually we found ourselves at UCLA, and they did an MRI and discovered she had multiple sclerosis.

"There were no medications at that time; some doctors would say, 'Your life is over.' We were devastated, and we didn't know what to do. But the symptoms went away for a while.   

"And then they came back. She was cheerleading at high school, and all the cheerleaders would run to the goalposts to cheer when there was a goal. But she couldn't run. And because she couldn't run, they all walked with her. I looked at my wife, who was crying, and said: 'We've got to do something about this. We've got to find a cure.'

"We called the Southern California chapter of the MS Society and said, 'We want to get involved.' They told us about the annual Dinner of Champions fundraiser, and I started to do it, and it kept getting bigger and bigger. Last year we raised $2.4 million.

"The organization is twofold: One fold is to help people who suffer from multiple sclerosis in the Southern California area who can't afford to help themselves, with wheelchairs, oxygen, support; and the other fold goes to the National MS Society for research.

"My daughter now is 35 years old; she has three children, and -- knock wood -- she's doing fine. But every day we get up and ask her how she is. You never know. You never know."