Celebrity Philanthropy

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Act of Philanthropy
Personal Wealth
Celebrities can improve awareness of a cause or a nonprofit with their fame. They use their voice and influence to make a difference for the issues they care about. They bring attention to issues and “give back” for what they have received. Originally, celebrities performed single acts of kindness that were highly publicized. Now, they often form partnerships or create their own nonprofit organizations for a long-term commitment to the sector. As the nonprofit sector becomes more familiar in households, philanthropists are starting to become celebrities themselves.

Authored by Courtney Baugh and KaLeigh Lee


The word celebrity is defined as “a famous or celebrated person” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (Merriam-Webster 2019). Furthermore, unlike well-known politicians and business professionals, a celebrity is an individual whose success in the field that made them famous does not necessarily add to their status once they are established (Rojek 2014). Modern celebrities are typically associated with the athletic and entertainment industries, including the sub-categories of film, television, and music (Rojek 2014).

Etymologically, philanthropy translates from Greek to “love of humanity” (Payton & Moody 2008). The definition has since been developed, with one widely-used definition being “voluntary action for the public good” (Payton & Moody 2008). Although, people commonly assume an act of philanthropy must require monetary giving, philanthropy also includes volunteerism and association (Payton & Moody 2008). All three of these forms can be seen in celebrity philanthropy.

Celebrity philanthropy, therefore, is when a famous person performs a philanthropic act, such as giving money, volunteering time, or associating themselves with an organization or cause. Because philanthropy includes such a wide-range of actions, there are varying levels of involvement when a celebrity partakes in philanthropic activities (Piazza 2011).


Historic Roots

The concept of celebrity philanthropy is a more recently developed term, which has become increasingly used in contemporary times. Still, although the concept is generally a modern one, acts of celebrity philanthropy have occurred for quite some time. In fact, these partnerships existed during World War II, when the United States Army and the Screen Actors Guild worked together to provide entertainment to the armed forces through USO Camp Shows, Inc. (Piazza 2011). Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Humphrey Bogart, were among the participating celebrities, and resulted in over 300,000 performances, which reached over 173 million individuals, throughout the time of the war (Piazza 2011).

Another early example of the concept is Danny Kaye’s work with UNICEF. Danny Kaye, a well-known entertainer during the early-to-mid-twentieth century, used his fame and publicity to help increase the name recognition of UNICEF (Piazza 2011). The relationship was created unexpectedly when an airplane Kaye was on made an emergency landing in Ireland due to an engine fire (Piazza 2011). By chance, Kaye was sitting next to the Executive Director of UNICEF, Maurice Pate. The two began to chatting, and Pate disclosed the name recognition problem of UNICEF (Piazza 2011). Eager to help, Kaye vowed to help, leading to his work with the organization and eventually the making of a documentary on children in third world countries, titled “Assignment Children,” which donated its proceeds to UNICEF (Piazza 2011).

By the 1980s, the role of celebrity philanthropy increased, especially through the role of activism (Piazza 2011). Elizabeth Taylor became one of the first major celebrities to be actively involved in a controversial cause, when she became an AIDS relief spokesperson and activist after the death of her close friend, Rock Hudson (Piazza 2011). Additionally, in the same decade, numerous well-known musicians took a stand on famine relief. In 1985, led by Harry Belafonte, a group of highly-famous musicians, including Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross, Willie Nelson, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springsteen, recorded the song “We Are the World,” which raised over $10.8 million in support for the famine-struck country of Ethiopia (Piazza 2011). That same year, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure organized the concert, “Live Aid,” which raised additional funds for the cause (Piazza 2011). U2, Elton John, Run-DMC, Billy Joel, Madonna, Queen, and Bob Dylan were among the lineup (Piazza 2011). Since the turn of the century, celebrities have become increasingly involved in philanthropy (Piazza 2011).

These early encounters of celebrity philanthropy were seen mostly as a form of activism or one-time social good activities, rather than a longer term alliance or partnership like we see today (Piazza 2011). A shift toward these mutually benefiting relationships occurred at the turn of the century when Hollywood realized the potentially positive impact philanthropic work could have on a celebrity’s career (Piazza 2011). This shift has resulted in charity work becoming part of a celebrity’s business, impacting their brand, and therefore, often being seen as a necessity rather than voluntary act (Piazza 2011; Randall 2008).



Celebrity philanthropy is important because it not only impacts the celebrity, but also the nonprofit organization and the philanthropic sector. Celebrities can easily promote organizations by their ability to quickly become “viral” on the Internet. In the technology world, “going viral” is quickly and widely spreading through social media (Merriam-Webster 2019).

The relationship between celebrities and nonprofit organizations is one that is potentially beneficial to both parties. In recent years, the relationship has become more of an alliance, acting in some cases as a business partnership rather than a voluntary act (Piazza 2011; Randall 2008). In theory, these partnerships provide nonprofit organizations with an increase in exposure and public awareness, and hopefully, therefore an increase in connections and support (Kelly, Morgan & Coule 2014; Piazza 2011; Randall 2008). In return, celebrities are gaining a positive good-doer and charitable image while hopefully impacting a cause they are passionate about (Kelly, Morgan & Coule 2014; Piazza 2011; Randall 2008). With this relationship becoming more mutually impactful, celebrities are becoming more involved in the nonprofit sector now more than ever.

Although these relationships are created in order to receive certain benefits, in reality the relationship can also be detrimental (Kelly, Morgan & Coule 2014; Piazza 2011; Randall 2008). Because celebrities become a symbol of the nonprofit organization, the brands of the celebrity and nonprofit must align (Piazza 2011). Furthermore, a celebrity’s personal life and brand must be considered when establishing these relationships because if the celebrity and nonprofit organization do not match well, it can sometimes negatively impact the organization (Kelly, Morgan & Coule 2014; Piazza 2011; Randall 2008). For example, when Naomi Campbell walked down the catwalk wearing fur, just a few years after she posed nude for the PETA “We’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign, both PETA and Campbell faced backlash (Piazza 2011).

Additionally, these celebrity philanthropy relationships can often times be the result of mixed motives. Sometimes celebrities become involved in philanthropy solely as way to better their public image and brand, rather than to benefit the public good (Randall 208). As Dr. Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor at the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy, states “The charitable purpose might be to give scholarships, but it also serves as a vehicle for promoting the celebrity’s image” (Randall 2008). In fact, many celebrities only serve as the face of the nonprofit organizations, and do not actually donate time or money to the cause (Kelly, Morgan & Coule 2014; Piazza 2011; Randall 2008). This reality can lead to a fraudulent depiction of the both the celebrity and nonprofit organization (Randall 2008).

With an increasing number of celebrities becoming involved in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, these relationships are becoming more important to everyone involved. The reality is that these relationships are becoming more like a business model, and therefore, nonprofit organizations must begin to explore the concept, and decide how it fits in at their specific organization. Ultimately, these alliances raise important questions about the level of celebrity involvement within philanthropy and have caused nonprofit organizations to think about their policies and strategies regarding the concept.  


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector:

Celebrities are continually becoming more involved in the philanthropic sector. While there are different levels to celebrity involvement, the sector is seeing an increase in the overall involvement of celebrities. Celebrities can act as a spokesperson or ambassador for a nonprofit organization, they can give time and money, or they can even create their own charities or foundations to target their specific interests. Regardless of the level of involvement, celebrities are impacting the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors now more than ever.

Nonprofit organizations and the philanthropic sector are becoming more familiar to the common household. Research and reporting are now being done on high-profile donors. Some of these philanthropists are becoming celebrities themselves due to increased media coverage
on charitable acts; their generosity leads to their fame. Philanthropists are becoming household names just as easily as movie stars (Martin 2015). The philanthropic sector is earning credibility through professionals in the field.

Since the turn of the century, countless of nonprofit organizations have been impacted by celebrity involvement (Piazza 2011). Celebrities are becoming involved in existing nonprofit organizations, and also creating entirely new nonprofit organizations, usually in the form of foundations (Pizza 2011). In fact, celebrities are now becoming social entrepreneurs, targeting the causes that are important to them and aiming to positively impact such (Kelly, Morgan & Coule 2014). With this increasing involvement of celebrities, nonprofit organizations must consider if and how their organization wants to implement the use of celebrities. Ultimately, the utilization of celebrities is changing the strategies of specific nonprofit organizations and the overall philanthropic sector.


Key Related Ideas:

  • Foundations are nonprofit organizations that support other organizations and causes usually through the donation of funds (Anheier 2014). Foundations range in size, and differ in what organizations and causes they support (Anheier 2014).

  • Activism is the practice of actively supporting a cause that is often times controversial or tendentious (Merriam-Webster 2016). Activism is frequently seen as the act of “good-doing” (Merriam-Webster 2016).  

  • Social Entrepreneurship refers to the “innovation and initiation of social change in all areas of need,” often executed by establishing a new nonprofit or community organization (Anheier 2014, 10). Social entrepreneurship attempts to find a solution to social issues (Anheier 2014).


Important People Related to the Topic:

  • Oprah Winfrey (1954-present) is a former talk show host and media mogul, known for her philanthropic work throughout her career. She has consistently ranked on most generous and charitable lists. Winfrey has established two sister foundations: the Oprah Winfrey Foundation and Oprah’s Angel Network, which support numerous of causes and organizations.

  • LeBron James (1984-present) is a NBA player for the Cleveland Cavaliers. James has been an advocate of education and extra-curricular activities for children, especially within low income areas. He has been a supporter of the Boys & Girls Club of America, and recently created the LeBron James Family Foundation.

  • Leonardo DiCaprio (1974-present) is a movie actor and film producer, who has become an environmental activist and philanthropist. He is the founder of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, and was appointed as the United Nations Messenger of Peace on Climate Change in 2014. In 2016, DiCaprio produced and starred in the documentary, Before the Flood, which addresses the topic of climate change.

  • Angelina Jolie (1975-present) is a movie and film actress turned humanitarian. Her efforts have been focused on human rights, refugee and child immigration, education, and child welfare. Jolie has served in a variety of roles in the philanthropic sector, including perhaps most noteworthy as an ambassador to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Jolie also established the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation with her then husband, Brad Pitt.

  • Ashton Kutcher (1978-present) is an actor, producer, venture capitalist, and philanthropist. In 2012, he founded THORN with Demi Moore to tackle the issue of child sex trafficking. The organization uses technology to reduce online sexual abuse of children, including the termination of child pornography rings.

  • Warren Buffett (1930-present) is an American businessman, investor, and philanthropist. As the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, he has become the fourth-wealthiest individual in the world. He has gained famed through his ingenious investing practices, but he is most known for his philanthropic actions. Buffett promotes billionaires to give to charitable causes, and he himself has pledged to donate 99% of his fortune.


Related Nonprofit Organizations:

  • Giving Back Fund is a nonprofit organization that facilitates philanthropic and charitable giving from well-known and high worth individuals, including celebrities, professional athletes, and politicians, and organizations. Giving Back Fund assists these individuals and organizations in the process of giving back to society and their communities. (https://www.givingback.org/)

  • UTA (United Talent Agency) Foundation is a nonprofit organization created by the United Talent Agency in hopes to assist and guide its constituents, including its celebrity clients, in philanthropic activity and charitable giving. The UTA Foundation connects celebrities and nonprofit organizations. (https://www.unitedtalent.com/)

  • Celebrities for Charity Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides resources on philanthropy to celebrities so that their philanthropic aspirations can be obtained while also meeting the demands of the public. Celebrities for Charity Foundation also uses celebrity relationships and connections to benefit smaller organizations that lack support from the general public. (https://www.celebritiesforcharity.org/home)


Reflection Questions:

  1. How do you think a celebrity working with a nonprofit organization impacts your view of the celebrity or the nonprofit organization?
  2. Does it matter if a celebrity is involved in philanthropy and charitable acts, and if so, does the level of involvement make a difference (i.e. if a celebrity serves as a spokesperson, donates time and money, or establishes their own foundation)?
  3. What are some ethical considerations that nonprofits should consider when deciding to work with a celebrity?



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  • Rojek, C. “Understand Celebrity” in Turner, G. Understand Celebrity, 3-30, London, UK: Sage Publications, 2014.
  • “Activism.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed November 5, 2016. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/activism
  • “Celebrity.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed October 8, 2016. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/celebrity.
  • Kelly, S. P., Morgan, G. G., & Coule, T. M.. “Celebrity altruism: the good, the bad and the ugly in relationships with fundraising charities.” International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 2014. 19: 57‐75.
  • Payton, Robert. And Michael Moody. “Introduction: Why this Book?” in Understanding Philanthropy: Meanings and Mission, 1-27. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.
  • Piazza, J. “David Arquette and Celebrity-Charity Synergy: Fame Will Feed the Poor” in Celebrity, Inc.: How Famous People Make Money, Chapter 10. New York, NY: Open Road Media, 2011.  
  • Randall, David K. “The Truth About Celebrity Giving.” Forbes, November 24, 2008, https://www.forbes.com/2008/11/24/oprah-philanthropy-celebrity-biz-media-cz_dkr_1124charitycelebs.html.
  • THORN. “Defending Children From Sexual Abuse: About Thorn.” Thorn, https://www.thorn.org/about-our-fight-against-sexual-exploitation-of-children/.
  • “Viral”. Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed October 29, 2019. https://www.merriamwebster.com/dictionary/viral
  • “Warren Buffett.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine. Accessed December 7, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/profile/warren-buffett/#5b3aaaab4639.


This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.