August 21, 2014

America’s Celebrity Obsession Shouldn’t Dictate What Causes Get Attention

UNHCR/O. Laban-Mattei

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie records the stories of refugees who have just escaped the war in Syria at the Jaber border crossing in Jordan.

The world’s celebrity obsession grows every day. How else to explain why doing a Google search on the name Kim Kardashian gets 51 million results?

Such a star-struck culture has been a great asset for the nonprofit universe.

Business and political celebrities like Bill Gates and Bill Clinton have drawn unprecedented attention for life-changing efforts around the world through the work of their foundations. Meanwhile, actors like Angelina Jolie have commanded new interest in international causes both through personal giving and through work as goodwill ambassadors to United Nations programs.

Some people have even tried to measure celebrity value: Forbes magazine estimated that Paul McCartney's publicity work for PETA over just one year was worth more than $1-million in "publicity value" to the organization.

But the focus on celebrities and their charity ties has a downside, too.

While the news media race to cover causes and organizations endorsed by celebrities, they often refuse to pay attention to groups that don’t believe in going the celebrity route—or that quite frankly are too controversial or unsexy to get Hollywood’s attention.

Letting celebrities become the arbiters of what causes get media attention can have an even more serious dark side, especially when journalists let their guard down and don’t ask tough questions.

A devastating example of what can happen when journalists are seduced by stars became apparent this spring with the fall of the Somaly Mam Foundation.

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof first promoted the group’s founder, Somaly Mam, in his column in 2008 only to withdraw his support in June of this year, after Ms. Mam was alleged to have invented key elements of her life story, notably that she had been forced into prostitution in Cambodia as a child.

But, as Mr. Kristof noted in his blog explaining his early support of Ms. Mam: "I thought she was a hero and, in fairness, so did lots of others. Glamour was among the first to notice and honor her, in 2006, and she was a CNN hero in 2007 and a protagonist in an American book that year, ‘In Search of Hope.’ She was also a Time 100 figure, a speaker at Fortune’s ‘most powerful women’ conference, and one of Newsweek/Daily Beast’s Women Who Shake the World. The Washington Post wrote about her in 2007 and then in 2008 published one of the longest and most detailed tributes to her."

As Mr. Kristof demonstrated, lots of prominent journalists and media outlets fell for Ms. Mam’s story.

What is so disturbing about the fact that he was taken in by all of this is that he has been such a strong advocate on behalf of organizations fighting the international human-trafficking underworld. If a journalist as knowledgeable as he is can fall for a "hero," it is a sign of how destructive our obsession with celebrity can be.

And it is why I and other nonprofit leaders are frustrated that the news media use celebrity as a measure of worthiness of charitable causes.

Many "old school" nonprofit organizations—decade after decade—do critically important work that the media seemingly view as boring and inconsequential.

What can an organization devoted, say, to providing human services like foster care and after-school programs do to compete for public attention with one endorsed by Angelina Jolie?

What are the chances that a grass-roots volunteer effort to boost self-esteem among minority teenagers will gain national exposure?

And how can new nonprofits that lack celebrity endorsements survive and grow into the next American Red Cross or Boys & Girls Clubs of America?

Those are questions everyone who cares about helping society needs to think hard about. And while I certainly hope that celebrities will keep giving attention to great causes, I also hope more of them will take a closer look at some of the organizations whose work is not hip, hot, or trendy and put them in the media spotlight.

Susan Danish is executive director of the Association of Junior Leagues International.