News and analysis
October 08, 2014

Miley Cyrus Raises More Than $200,000 for Small Nonprofit

Christopher Polk/MTV1415

Singer Miley Cyrus and My Friend's Place representative Jesse Helt at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards.

A fundraising campaign kicked off by the pop star Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards in August raised more than $200,000—and loads of publicity—for a small nonprofit serving homeless youths in Hollywood, Calif.

The four-week campaign for My Friend’s Place, which provides meals, clothing, education, arts programs, and other services for young people living on the streets, concluded on September 21. Trevor Neilson, a philanthropy consultant and co-founder of the Global Philanthropy Group, who is advising Ms. Cyrus, says the online fundraising effort brought in just over $200,000. It was conducted on a dedicated web page on the site Prizeo and attracted mostly small gifts from Ms. Cyrus’s fans, Mr. Neilson says.

Checks from big donors, at least some of whom the 21-year-old Ms. Cyrus solicited at the awards show, totaled approximately $50,000 more.

Heather Carmichael, executive director of My Friend’s Place, says the nonprofit is privately funded by individuals, foundations, and corporations and receives no government support. This year, its operating budget is about $1.5-million.

"Every year we are fundraising our budgets, so $200,000 can do a lot in our organization," she says, adding that she and her colleagues have been in regular contact with the Cyrus camp, most recently with a proposal for how they will spend the money. Ms. Carmichael declined to make the details public but said the use of the funds will be "something very true to sustaining the great work" of the organization.

Ms. Cyrus, who shot to fame as a child starring in the Disney Channel show "Hannah Montana" before launching a career as a solo artist, grabbed headlines when she took a 22-year-old homeless man as her date to the MTV Video Music Awards on August 24. The star sent the man, Jesse Helt, onstage to accept an award on her behalf. In turn, he acknowledged the "1.6 million runaways and homeless youth in the United States who are starving, lost, and scared for their lives right now."

Ms. Cyrus had met Mr. Helt several days earlier during a visit to My Friend’s Place, where he was receiving assistance.

Mr. Neilson says he has a longstanding relationship with My Friend’s Place, as both a consultant and a donor, and he introduced Ms. Cyrus to the nonprofit after she expressed interest in the issue of youth homelessness. Ms. Cyrus was not a client of his at the time, Mr. Neilson says, although she has since become one.

It was the pop star who came up with the idea to invite Mr. Helt to the awards show.

"These young people are her age, and what she said to me is, ‘I realize I have a stage, and people are listening,’ " Ms. Carmichael says. "From our perspective, she has done an amazing job creating conversation nationally, maybe even internationally. Homelessness is very marginalized."

The nonprofit fielded a flood of phone calls from media in the days following the award show, Ms. Carmichael says. Most encouraging was that fact that more than 7,000 people, many of them young fans, participated, she says.

Not all of the attention has been positive. Within days of the start of the campaign, news outlets seized on the fact that Mr. Helt had a criminal record in his home state of Oregon. But both Mr. Neilson and Ms. Carmichael point out that brushes with the law are not unusual for homeless youths, making Mr. Helt representative of the population. They also pushed back against skeptics questioning the sincerity of celebrity-driven cause work.

"My view of it is, if our culture is going to be obsessed with celebrity, than why not try to use that obsession for good?" Mr. Neilson says. "It’s better for a celebrity to not talk about a social problem than to talk about one? That is illogical to me."

Although Ms. Cyrus will not play a direct role in deciding how the donations to My Friend’s Place will be used, Mr. Neilson says, her relationship with the nonprofit will continue. The campaign, he says, is the beginning of what will be her continued commitment to helping tackle the problem of youth homelessness.

Meanwhile, the fundraising effort offers a case study on how star power, social media, and crowdfunding technology can be braided together, according to Mr. Neilson.

"This world of crowdfunding is in its infancy," Mr. Neilson says. "The truth is, when you combine a dramatic public event seen by a large number of people with crowdfunding, which is what Miley did in the case of the VMAs, you are going to reap the biggest benefits. I think that anybody that depends on crowdfunding to happen organically will be disappointed."

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.