April 20, 2011

Behind a Celebrity's Bid to Help Eastern Congo

Redwood City, Calif.

Plenty of examples exist of not-so-successful attempts by celebrities to engage in nonprofit work and advocacy. The Eastern Congo Initiative, started by the actor Ben Affleck, is winning some praise as an example of a smart approach.

Last week Mr. Affleck spoke about the project here at the Global Philanthropy Forum, an annual meeting of donors.

Mr. Affleck said he started thinking about getting involved in advocacy work when he was asked, like a lot of celebrities, to help raise awareness about the violence in Sudan's Darfur region.

"I was sort of the 10th celebrity in line," he joked. "They had George," he said, referring to the actor George Clooney.

But in reading about Darfur, Mr. Affleck started to learn about Eastern Congo, where millions of people have died in civil conflict since the late 1990s.

That led to further reading, and then trips to the region, where he met with local groups that are trying to stop the violence and improve the lives of people there.

With help from Williamsworks, a firm that provides advice to donors and nonprofits, Mr. Affleck shaped the Eastern Congo Initiative into a project that not only uses his celebrity to raise awareness about the Congo but also provides grants to community groups and supports advocacy efforts to get the United States government to pay more attention to the region.

In a conversation with Laurene Powell Jobs, the wife of Apple chief executive Steve Jobs and a supporter of the Eastern Congo Initiative, Mr. Affleck said he wanted to give money to local groups both to help people in the Congo directly but also to back up his advocacy work with real insights.

"We've all seen advocates who have a lot to say, but when I really drill down with them, I don't have any kind of clear sense of where their opinions are coming from," he said. "I wanted to have the integrity of doing that and I also wanted to make a tangible difference on the ground."

Mr. Affleck has assembled a team of supporters, including not only Ms. Jobs but also Howard Buffett, the son of billionaire financier Warren E. Buffett; Pam Omidyar, whose husband, Pierre Omidyar, founded eBay; and Cindy McCain, wife of Arizona Senator John McCain.

But Mr. Affleck said that the instability in the Congo has kept a lot of donors away: "The larger challenges of working in a failed state are real and daunting, and unfortunately they've kept away some really experienced, smart donors who might otherwise have made a big difference, or who could make a big difference going forward."