Philanthropy in Hollywood

A struggling economy and the lingering effects of the writers strike are impacting giving -- and receiving -- in Hollywood

Last summer, Lynn Barrett heard the worst news of her life: Her 15-year-old daughter was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

"She started to have symptomology when she was 7," Barrett recalls. "Normally, with a person who has this, the symptoms don't show up till they approach 13 years old. But she kept hearing voices, and I kept saying, 'You're just hearing people outside.' They first diagnosed her with ADD and then with obsessive compulsive (disorder). But we kept going and going until finally we got to the right doctors."

For most people, simply learning that their child has such a serious mental illness would be bad enough; but for Barrett and her husband, Thomas, a teamster who has worked on movies like 2002's "Spider-Man" and last year's "Transformers," the discovery was soon compounded by financial woes triggered by the writers strike in November.

Already, the Barretts had been obliged to refinance their house to pay for expensive private schooling and medical bills. Now, with filming delayed and no income, they were unable to pay their mortgage and were forced to resort to credit cards for their most basic needs.

"It got really bad," Barrett recalls. "I started to get sick from stress. My blood pressure went up. I couldn't get rid of a cold."

Then something of a miracle occurred. Seeking help for her cold, Barrett made an appointment to see a doctor at a Motion Picture & Television Fund facility. As she was leaving, she fell into conversation with a MPTF staffer.

"I started to cry," she remembers. "I started to tell her (what was happening), and she just walked me into the social services department. One of the staff gave me handfuls of tissues and told me about this fund, which I had no idea existed and which I had never thought to ask for help."

Almost immediately, the fund covered one full mortgage payment -- $2,100 -- and gave the Barretts $300 in gift certificates for food at Ralphs. Later, it would cover two more mortgage payments. It even arranged for their daughter to have a crucial MRI.

Today, the Barretts still have $10,000 in credit card debt; but their mortgage is paid, their property taxes are up-to-date and -- best of all -- Thomas Barrett has gone back to work. The fact that they still have a roof over their heads is largely thanks to the MPTF, one of Hollywood's premier charities.

"They have done nothing but help us," Lynn Barrett says. "They got us back on our feet."

For industry members lucky enough never to have experienced this sort of financial crisis, it may be hard to comprehend just how vital is the work of nonprofits like the MPTF, the Actors Fund, the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, the Entertainment Industry Foundation, the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation and the various organizations backed by the major agencies. These groups are not simply smoothing things over -- they are often the difference between life and death.

But many of the organizations are facing their greatest challenge yet, strained by the double whammy of a 14-week writers strike and an encroaching recession. Both have created a greater level of need than philanthropists have seen in years.

"We're hearing people talk about struggles between paying for their prescriptions and putting food on the table, and they're having to make a choice between them," says Kafi Blumenfield, president and CEO of the Liberty Hill Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to social change. "We're hearing people say they can't believe the simple act of going to the grocery store can be so stressful. It makes our work even more important."

But just when need is increasing, the writers strike has left many charities short of funds.

"Instead of having at least 40% of the budget left to complete the year, we have only 16%," says Marcia Smith, executive director of the SAG Foundation, which gives away $500,000 per year.

The dual impact of the strike and the slowdown has also made it harder for charities to raise money. For actor- and writer-related nonprofits, raising money was more challenging during the strike because some of the high-powered executives who might normally have risen to the occasion felt less inclined to do so. But nonprofits across the board have suffered from belt-tightening by individuals or corporations.

This has made staging the fundraising galas that are so vital to nonprofits more difficult.

Michelle Kleinert, executive director of the Lastfogel Foundation of the William Morris Agency, says the usual suspects who agree to be honored at these events are proving more resistant because they know that agreeing means having to go cap-in-hand to friends who may be reluctant to write a check.

"People this year have had to think twice about whether they are ready to be honored," she says. "They know it is a hard time, and to go and ask people to support their cause puts them in a difficult position."

It's not just individuals who are less willing to write checks, but companies as well.

"Whereas some entertainment industry companies might typically purchase a $10,000 table for a gala, during the strike year they might instead have just purchased a $1,000 ad (in the program)," notes Michael Donkis, president of the Endeavor Foundation.

And beyond the entertainment business, the major corporations that have supported the industry's charities are also holding back.

"The greatest impact to us has been felt in corporate sponsorships," says Ken Scherer, CEO of the MPTF Foundation, who notes that two sponsors pulled out of "The Night Before," the MPTF's annual pre-Oscar fundraiser. In the end, Scherer says, he felt relieved to have raised as much as $6.2 million, even though that was down from the $7 million raised the year before.

The writers strike that impacted charities so badly is over now, but the effects of the economic crisis are still being felt, especially for the nonprofits that rely on transportation.

"Some organizations like America's Second Harvest or the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank that have to use transportation are impacted because of rising food and fuel costs," says Rene Jones, director of the UTA Foundation, which helps both those charities. "They have to drop off food because their clients are homebound. And the food banks often have to take food from their distribution banks to other smaller centers."

With problems like these, an even greater level of concern than usual pervades the nonprofit world. For now, many are pleased they managed to survive; others have even benefited from a fresh wave of volunteerism made possible by unemployment during the strike. But all admit they're terrified of the prospect of another strike. If that happens, families like the Barretts will need far more help than even the MPTF and other willing benefactors can offer.

"If there is an actors strike, all bets are off," Scherer reflects. "And if there is a long strike, we will really be struggling."