News and analysis
February 29, 2012

Lady Gaga’s Foundation Is Born, With Help From Some Prominent Nonprofit Midwives

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Lady Gaga

The pop star known for thundering dance beats and outlandish outfits like the “meat dress” she wore to 2010’s Video Music Awards has landed the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and some other choice cuts from the philanthropy and academic worlds to help her foundation make its debut today.

Lady Gaga, the 25-year-old singer from New York’s Upper West Side, will unveil her Born This Way Foundation this afternoon on a stage at Harvard University where Winston Churchill and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke. Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society is advising the star on her foundation.

Top officials from the MacArthur fund and the California Endowment, which are backing Lady Gaga’s foray into philanthropy, will be on hand, as well as 18 youths from the California fund’s programs. Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, is scheduled to attend, as is Oprah Winfrey.

The cause for which Lady Gaga (nee Stefani Germanotta) has assembled a chorus of support from such a dissonant bunch is to build self-esteem among young people. The Born This Way Foundation will seek to fight bullying and “inspire bravery” among young people, online and off.

Benefits to Foundations

For Lady Gaga’s foundation, the benefits of working with big-name nonprofits are many. Harvard and the foundations have helped connect Born This Way, which is being led by the pop star’s mother, Cynthia Germanotta, with the latest research on youth civility. Their imprimatur also lends intellectual heft. There’s money involved, too. (Financial details, including an announcement on Lady Gaga’s own contribution to the foundation, will be disclosed later today.)

But how does the Lady Gaga brand help MacArthur and the California Endowment? And does it make sense for buttoned-down philanthropy to work so closely with a star who has such a flamboyant reputation?

Connie Yowell, who oversees MacArthur’s grants to digital-media projects, says Lady Gaga has solved the “scale” problem that bedevils many a foundation.

Ms. Yowell ticks off Lady Gaga’s social-media stats with the familiarity of someone who has probably made the “case for support” to her supervisors many times: 15 million Twitter followers, 40 million Facebook fans, 1.6 billion video views on YouTube.

When the star first shared news of her foundation in December, more than 100,000 people signed up on its Web site to receive information.

“Born This Way adds something that we simply don’t have, and that is reach,” says Ms. Yowell.

'A Researcher’s Dream’

John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor who co-directs the Berkman Center, calls the opportunity to help shape a foundation’s agenda “a researcher’s dream.”

It also appeals to grant makers working directly with youths. Robert Ross, who leads the California foundation, says Lady Gaga will energize the young people his fund supports in a way the “boring president of the California Endowment” cannot.

The California Endowment and MacArthur may be just the vanguard. Joe Voeller, a spokesman at the Ford Foundation, one of several other grant makers to whom Born This Way has reached out, says in an e-mail to The Chronicle: “We’ve been impressed with the seriousness, commitment, and rigor that Lady Gaga is bringing to the creation of her foundation.”

Reaching Young People

Impressive or not, Lady Gaga and her brand do carry risks. The singer has built her success on shocking people. Her song “Judas” angered religious leaders. Some animal-rights activists decried her meat dress, which was made from slabs of steak.

Dr. Ross says questions about working with Lady Gaga are “legitimate” but that philanthropy is far too concerned about finding itself the victim of negative publicity.

“Institutional philanthropy has a great deal more reputation and brand capital than we care to spend,” he says.

Alan Abramson, a professor of nonprofit management at George Mason University, says the “man bites dog” philanthropic pairings are savvy marketing.

The young people MacArthur wants to reach probably aren’t public-radio listeners familiar with its mission to create “a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” For the foundation to see Lady Gaga as a way to build buzz around efforts to promote civility online “makes all the sense in the world,” he says.

Born on an Airplane

The Born This Way Foundation was conceived, according to Lady Gaga’s mother, on a plane ride home from a European tour last spring. Cynthia Germanotta says her daughter had been troubled by recent incidents of online hazing of gay youths. (This fall, she dedicated a live performance to a fan, Jamey Rodemeyer, who committed suicide after what his parents say were years of taunting because of his sexuality.)

Hunkered under an airline blanket, Lady Gaga started talking about some of her ideas for inspiring young people, her mother says. Ms. Germanotta grabbed a piece of paper and began taking notes.

While the causes that some celebrities champion are head scratchers (how did Matt Damon pick water conservation, for example, or Natalie Portman, microfinance?), Lady Gaga’s is a no-brainer. She has talked openly about feeling “like a freak” as a teenager. Her songs—particularly “Born This Way,” the title track of her 2011 album—are sometimes appeals for tolerance, social acceptance, and courage. (“There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are,” she sings in the video, in clothes that alternate between black-and-white underwear and a suit with a skeleton mask. “So hold your head up, girl, and you’ll go far.”)

Lady Gaga’s managers connected her mother with David Washington, a former aide in the Obama White House’s Office of Public Engagement, to serve as philanthropic adviser. Mr. Washington, like everyone else involved in Born This Way, takes pains to emphasize the seriousness of the endeavor.

Through his work with Causecast, a technology company that receives MacArthur money, Mr. Washington had been talking with Ms. Yowell. They realized Lady Gaga, because of her passions and social-media prowess, seemed like a good fit for the foundation’s goals.

Cynthia Germanotta, a businesswoman who worked in telecommunications for 25 years, visited MacArthur’s programs in Chicago. Later, thanks also to Mr. Washington, she had a two-and-a-half-hour lunch with the California Endowment’s Dr. Ross at a cafe run by Homeboy Industries, one of the fund’s grantees.

Bus Tour

Born This Way describes its approach as “online, on the road, and down the street.”

MacArthur will be working with Lady Gaga’s charity on a social-media campaign to share cutting-edge research conducted by Harvard and engage parents, teachers, and policy makers in discussions about how to protect and embolden young people. MacArthur and Born This Way will also sponsor a bus tour to serve as a way for young people to learn about positive opportunities for online learning. The California Endowment is exploring ways to tap Lady Gaga’s influence, perhaps by using her name in youth centers and incorporating arts programs into those places.

But first comes the raising of the curtain at Harvard today. The event will surely be a spectacle, at least by Harvard standards; Ms. Germanotta says she’s not sure what outfit her daughter will don, that it will probably be a “last-minute” decision.

She will probably not be taking inspiration from John D. MacArthur, an insurance tycoon who died in 1978. The Mac­Arthur foundation benefactor—who, unlike Lady Gaga, waited until his death to start giving his money away—was said to favor drip-dry shirts.