Do Celebrities Need Their Own Foundations?

Remember back in 2010 after the earthquake that devastated Haiti, when Wyclef Jean briefly emerged as a major spokesman for the island? His Yele Haiti foundation raised a fortune. He was briefly a candidate for president of the country. And then it turned out that Yele Haiti at minimum wasn’t providing much in the way of useful services, and at worst, was something of a personal slush fund for Jean and his family. Now, Kanye West’s foundation, which has a stated purpose of combatting “the severe dropout problem in schools across the United States by providing under-served youth access to music production programs,” turns out to have spent just $7,695 on programming that serves that purpose between 2008 to 2010. It doesn’t seem like Kanye was looting the foundation or anything—the spending on wages, salaries, and benefits seems fairly reasonable for a non-profit. But it does raise the question of why celebrities set up personal foundations at all.

I’m all for celebrity charitable giving. I think it’s just dandy that rich people feel obligated to give away at least some portion of their wealth lest folks get too angry at them for having it. And of course it’s well within people’s rights to give money to whatever wacky causes they wish. But I do wish that when celebrities started thinking about how to give their money away, efficacy was at the top of their lists.

Acting is a highly specialized profession. So is non-profit management. As is, say, rebuilding after an earthquake or running a music education program. So just because celebrities are invested in an issue doesn’t actually mean they’re particularly well-qualified to do work in that arena, or to know how to hire people who are. Creating a new organization in a space can be redundant, and create a burdensome grant proposal process that adds work for organizations who are better-qualified to actually spend that money. And if that new organization ends up doing essentially no valuable work at all, it’s an embarrassment. Having your name on the organization isn’t worth it if that’s going to be the final result. And it’s not as if there aren’t a plethora of organizations who would love to give celebrities a seat on their boards, ask them to do very little work, and ensure that their money gets spent in a way that’s efficient and useful. Being lazy about your charitable giving can end up requiring that you expend more effort in the long run when it’s revealed to be hollow or a fraud.