IP Briefing: What’s Going on with the Philanthropy of Celebrities, Athletes, and Moguls?

In a sentence: Celebrities and athletes don’t tend to have the enormous philanthropic capacity that finance or tech billionaires do, but they are a more diverse bunch with huge potential to mobilize support for the causes they care about. 

What’s going on

Though celebrities and athletes rarely have the billions associated with financial and tech industry plutocrats, an increasingly large number have sizable fortunes. They also have big public followings that can be mobilized for good. And unlike the old boys’ club of Wall Street or the new boys’ club of Silicon Valley, these donors are more diverse, with women and people of color strongly represented. 

Still, it can be hard for grantseekers to connect with these famous funders. Many celebrities give individual donations without using a foundation structure, and networking plays an especially critical role in the rarefied realm of celebrity giving. In our State of American Philanthropy report, we highlight some avenues for nonprofit professionals to access prominent actors and athletes, such as contacting their talent and social impact agencies or paying a for-profit intermediary to broker a partnership. Fundraisers should also note that somewhat less famous athletes or entertainers might be easier to reach than superstars. 

Celebrity giving priorities of course vary from person to person, and include education and youth (priorities of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, George Lucas, and others), global development and human rights (Bono, Angelina Jolie), climate change and the environment (Leonardo DiCaprio, Rihanna), the arts (Herb Alpert), medical research (Michael J. Fox), Jewish causes (Steven Spielberg), progressive policy and equity (Norman Lear, JJ Abrams and Katie McGrath), and crisis response, such as Dolly Parton’s COVID-19 vaccine research gift

Celebrities have a unique capacity to leverage their influence during global crises. Consider Live Aid, the legendary 1985 concert broadcast around the globe to a viewing audience of 1.5 billion. In the end, the greatest philanthropic impact of entertainers and athletes might not be in the number of dollars each personally gives, but in their ability to marshal their huge social media followings and public personae to raise awareness and funds. 

To put celebrity philanthropic capacity into perspective: not a single athlete, writer, or actor was ranked on the Forbes list of the richest people in the world. The billionaires on the list who made their fortunes in the entertainment and media industry were media magnates like David Geffen. And while celebrity givers are a rising force in philanthropy, collectively speaking, their overall wealth pales in comparison to billionaires hailing from other fields. Still, we expect philanthropic giving by individuals in entertainment and sports is likely to grow in coming years as their wealth does.  

By the numbers

  • According to Forbes, in 2020, the Top 100 of the world’s highest-paid celebrities earned a combined $6.1 billion before taxes and fees. Elon Musk grew his fortune by $140 billion in the same year.   

Big givers

The highest-capacity givers in this area are producers like JJ Abrams and media moguls like Oprah Winfrey and David Geffen. 

Longtime celebrity philanthropists include Elton John, Herb and Lani Alpert, and Norman and Lyn Lear. The current generation of entertainment and sports figures who give substantially include Michael Jordan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Rihanna, Shonda Rhimes, Steven Spielberg, Beyonce and Jay Z, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Jami Gertz and Antony Ressler, bestselling author Nora Roberts, and Lebron James. Some of these figures have been engaged in philanthropy for a decade or more, while others are just starting. 

Some entertainment and sports figures primarily fund their own foundations, including Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation, named after her grandparents; Bette Midler’s Jeckyl Foundation, whose grantmaking includes support of the arts and education; and the Serena Williams Fund, which provides assistance to youth whose families have been affected by violent crimes, as well as to assist college-bound youth from low-income backgrounds.

New and notable 

Food for thought 

“Celebrities give charities exposure; charities give celebrities empathy.” — Jo Piazza, in Celebrity, Inc.: How Famous People Make Money

Go deeper

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