AT&T Star Steps Up for Syrian Refugees

(Milana Vayntrub speaking at VidCon 2012. Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore)

Following a recent trip to Greece, Milana Vayntrub – the actress who plays the buoyant shop clerk in AT&T commercials – has found a new cause: the Syrian refugee crisis.

The actress was once a refugee herself, fleeing Russia as a child in the 1980s. In an essay for the website Popsugar, she writes:

My family fled the Soviet Union because of hostile circumstances for Jews in the late ’80s. I was too young to remember details of the yearlong journey, but my parents have told me stories about the poverty and constant uncertainty they faced before we were lucky enough to settle in Los Angeles.

With this experience in mind, Vayntrub was struck by the plight of Syrian refugees in Greece, who often risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean on rafts. According to the European Union’s border control agency – Frontex – 131,724 people have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far in 2016. The vast majority of these refugees have arrived in Greece, a nation still in the throes of a debt crisis and bruising austerity imposed by EU fiat. The prime minister of Germany Angela Merkel has recently underscored the additional assistance that the Hellenic Republic needs to cope with the ongoing crisis.

In her essay, Vayntrub describes the scenes in Greece that compelled her to not only ditch her vacation and help in the moment, but to also create a new nonprofit as well:

I’d never seen anything like it. As we rushed to the shore, people stepped off the rafts, some in tears, some celebrating. They passed their children off the boat to volunteers before jumping into the water themselves. Some people collapsed as they got off the boat because their legs had gone numb from spending an hour with 50 people on a raft only meant to carry a dozen. On the shore, volunteer doctors checked the babies’ temperatures and dried them off. I tried to contain my shock and concern, focusing on greeting people with a smile and a warm hug.

Moved by the experience, Vayntrub founded #CantDoNothing, a nonprofit campaign to raise awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis and to raise money for affiliated organizations working to ameliorate migrants’ tenuous and dire situation.

“I learned a lot in Greece,” writes Vayntrub, “One of the biggest lessons was that everyone has something powerful and important to contribute — something that can make the world a little (or a lot) better.”

Read the whole essay here and visit #CantDoNothing to learn how you can help.

#BeyGOOD: Beyonce to Aid Flint

After immense praise following her Super Bowl 50 half-time performance (as well as criticism from pro-police groups), Beyoncé made news with a fundraising announcement; the pop singer will campaign on behalf of children affected by the Flint water crisis.

An extension of her #BeyGOOD Foundation, the campaign will raise money for the United Way’s Flint Child Health and Development Fund, which provides for the nutrition of city’s youth besieged by the ongoing water contamination jeopardizing the welfare of city residents. Fundraising will also go toward Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which underwrites educational needs and health care costs for children.

The crisis began in 2014 when Flint city officials decided to switch the town’s water supply to the Flint River – a notoriously toxic body of water widely known to contain dangerous chemicals. The water is so corrosive that it eroded the city’s lead pipes, spilling the substance into the water supply and poisoning inhabitants.

Scores of other celebrities have stepped up to help Flint: the band Pearl Jam has donated $125,000; Meek Mill contributed 60,000 bottles of water; Big Sean has announced a $100,000 gift; The Game has pledged $1 million; Jimmy Fallon has committed to donating $10,000.

Working collectively, rapper Eminem, hip-hop star Wiz Khalifa, Seadn “Diddy” Combs, and actor Mark Wahlberg amassed 1 million bottles of water for Flint.

Beyoncé’s entry into the field is just the pop star’s latest philanthropic gesture. Over the years, she has contributed $7 million to fight homelessness in her hometown of Houston, Texas, and recently bailed out Black Lives Matter protesters in Baltimore.

While the financial contributions of Beyoncé and other stars both help ease the deleterious effects of the crisis and raise awareness of the issue, Flint still has a long way to go before regaining water normalcy. The situation could take as much as $1.5 billion to fix.

Philadelphia Charities to Benefit from Pope’s Visit

[Leading up to Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia in September, Shaping the Story will provide regular updates on nonprofit and charity issues as they relate to the pontiff’s first U.S. trip]

Visiting the Philippines on January 18, Pope Francis brought fellow catholics out in droves.

An estimated 6 million people attended what has been officially declared the largest Catholic mass ever held in the county. Appearing in a modest, inexpensive yellow poncho, the Pope spoke about society’s responsibility to children.

The world was moved in particular by his response to an orphaned street girl who had been rescued by a church-run foundation. “Why is God allowing something like this to happen, even to innocent children? And why are there so few who are helping us?” the 12-year old girl asked.

The ever-empathetic Pope responded, “Only when we are able to cry are we able to come close to responding to your question…Those who are discarded cry. But those who are living a life that is more or less without need, we don’t know how to cry. There are some realities that you can only see through eyes that have been cleansed by tears.”

Pope Francis also paid homage to Catholic nonprofit institutions, stopping at Manila’s Catholic university and spending 20 minutes with the father of a volunteer for Catholic Relief Services who died the day before from collapsing scaffolding in the seaside city of Tacloban.

The Pope’s popularity is unquestionable. He has achieved a rock star status, including in the United States, where he has even adorned the cover of Rolling Stone. A Pew Research Center poll shows that around 80 percent of U.S. Catholics – who will finally have an opportunity to see the pontiff during his first U.S. visit this coming September – have a favorable view of Pope Francis.

The focal point of the visit is the World Meeting of Families, scheduled for September 22 through 25 in Philadelphia. Following the conference, millions of people will flock to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to hear Pope Francis speak on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. The Vatican’s itinerary will also include either a visit to a children’s hospital or to a juvenile prison facility.

The visit presents a unique opportunity for Philadelphia-based nonprofits to galvanize their volunteers and supporters and to reposition their fundraising strategy and messaging for greater results, as the Archdiocese has already done by laying the groundwork for an ambitious year.

On January 20, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia announced a $10 million fundraising goal for the annual Catholic Charities appeal – the chief source of revenue for charitable Catholic activities aiding some 200,000 people through 80 programs. Archbishop Chaput has helped turnaround the region’s Catholic fundraising practices since he entered his position in 2011, surpassing $10 million in fundraising in both 2013 and 2014. The added excitement of the Pope’s visit should make this year even more profitable.

With the media attention, as well as the millions of energized Catholics (and non-Catholic philanthropists no less enthralled by the Pope’s presence) descending on the city, Philadelphia-based Catholic charities and nonprofits should follow the Archbishop’s lead and leverage the Vatican’s visit for 2015 fundraising. The pope’s message of charity, in conjunction with his popularity, will provide fuel for nonprofits’ invaluable basic needs work.

Fundraising Progress in Ebola Fight

In September 2014, several reports explored the difficulty that fundraisers were having as they struggled to raise money for the fight against ebola. A number of factors – from the seeming remoteness of the disease in Africa, to the expectation for the government to simply deal with these sort of issues – left people in a state of passivity, while the disease continued to ravage cities in West Africa and NGOs battling the disease were left with increasingly steep bills.

Then there were scares at home. Here in the United States, a couple of cases brought the reality of the disease to the attention of the nation’s news media. A man in Dallas, having travelled to Liberia, passed away from the disease in a Texas hospital. A New York doctor contracted the disease while working abroad and caused a stir by having a night out on the town shortly before the symptoms appeared (the disease only being contagious, of course, once a carrier is symptomatic).

But as time went on and no new cases popped up, the fear dissipated – and so did the media attention.

While the disease still threatens many communities in West Africa, the situation has certainly improved. In conjunction with the brave work of many NGOs – as well as government personnel from a score of nations, including the United States and Cuba – donors finally broke the dry spell last fall by opening their wallets. Beginning with high profile philanthropists from the tech sector, the flush of fundraising and government-vowed assistance at least partially ameliorated the peak level of carnage wrought by the virus. Now, Mali is ebola-free, and Liberia and Guinea are moving to reopen schools in the coming months.

Bill Gates began the big donor trend in September 2014, when he committed $50 million to fight ebola. He donated another $5.7 million in November. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife followed suit, pledging $25 million to the cause last October.

Facebook went on to initiate a crowdsourcing campaign to raise money for ebola. Big tech is also providing logistical support for the effort, as recent news out of the Davos summit reveal that a collaboration of companies including NetHope, Facebook, Cisco, and Inveneo will work to provide reliable internet connectivity to support NGO work in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea.

Compared to fall 2014, there also appears to be a significant increase in bottom-up fundraising: a Liberian student at Eastern Mennonite University is teaming up with Nobel Peace laureate Leymah Gbowee to raise money; organizers in Winnipeg are putting together a concert to benefit children orphaned by the disease; to date, the crowdfunding site GlobalGiving has helped raise $3 million for 29 community organizations on the frontline of the fight against ebola.

The path to eradicating this horrible virus is still long and difficult, but global efforts that arose from the uproar over the initially weak and non-unified response to the disaster appear to be making a very tangible impact.

Seven Celebrity PR Disasters and Their Impacts on Fundraising

Celebrity donors or spokespersons can make a huge difference for non-profits, foundations, political campaigns, and higher education. High-profile figures bring attention to an organization’s activities, expanding the reach and scope of its message.

But this public attention—as valuable as it is for fundraisers—can also be a curse.

Organizations do not want to associate with controversy when it’s avoidable, especially if it is caused by one of their philanthropic luminaries who naturally attract so much media scrutiny.

Just recently, Bill Cosby stepped down from his position on the Temple University board of trustees. As thankful as the the university likely is for Cosby’s philanthropic support over the years, it takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why the actor—reeling from renewed sexual assault and rape allegations—would distance himself. There is no doubt that the board of trustees and administrators at Temple would prefer to keep their work as far removed from Cosby’s issues as possible.

There is no certain metric to gauge just how bad the fallout of a public relations disaster will be. The effects, however, can be very palpable.

Here is a list of seven celebrity PR imbroglios that have—in some way—adversely affected philanthropic work. Each case is different, but they all reinforce the fact that the behavior of high-profile spokespersons can hinder the efforts (or even tarnish the image) of the non-profit organizations they represent.

In 2012, the world learned that Lance Armstrong used blood doping in order to gain a competitive edge in cycling. In an emotional plea presented on Oprah, Armstrong sought atonement for his actions and apologized for hiding the truth.

Up until these revelations, Armstrong symbolized will-power and munificence. After beating testicular cancer, he went on to compete in international cycling, winning numerous titles along the way. He also founded Livestrong, a hugely influential cancer-support non-profit known for its yellow solidarity bracelets that raised millions of dollars.

Following his admission of guilt, Armstrong lost numerous sponsorships and cut ties with Livestrong. Losing its highly recognizable public face resulted in concrete financial loses for the organization. In one year, the non-profit reported a 22 percent decline in revenues, falling from $44.8 million to $38.1 million.

Who says there’s no such thing as bad press? With the departure of the group’s founder, Livestrong lost its chief fundraising personality, and suffered for it financially.

Sports writers and philanthropy analysts consider Tiger Woods one of the most philanthropic professional athletes ever. His Tiger Woods Foundation awarded $2.9 million in scholarships and education grants in 2010. His youth centers offer after-school educational programs, as well as sports training for kids.

Less salubrious aspects of his life, however, caught media attention in 2009, when celebrity gossip magazines began publishing information on Woods’ extramarital affairs. The claims and public scrutiny culminated in a domestic dispute in which Woods crashed his SUV into a fire hydrant after an altercation with his wife.

After publicly apologizing for his adulterous behavior, Woods went into a self-imposed exile from public golf tournaments—including his own charitable events. He skipped out on the Chevron World Challenge, one of two major charity tournaments that raises money for his foundation. Woods’ absence resulted in over $25,000 refunded to disgruntled attendees, as well as a 20 percent ticket discount for the following year’s event.

Tiger Woods’ celebrity is an essential component of his fundraising power. When potential donors or ticket-buyers were unable to enjoy his presence at an event billed with his name, they didn’t show up. And neither did their money.

The empress of a vast media empire, Paula Deen made a name for herself through her southern charm and butter-heavy, down-home cooking. Fans from across the country became enamored with her cookbooks and television programs, making her one of the most influential celebrity chefs in the United States.

But during questioning under oath, however, not-so-savory stories from her past crept into the media spotlight.

In 2012, a former employee of a Savannah, Georgia restaurant co-owned by Paula Deen filed a discrimination lawsuit, alleging that she was the victim of sexual harassment and the target of racial slurs. When Paula Deen was questioned on the matter the following year, prosecutors asked her about her racial attitudes. She admitted to using racially charged language in the past, and that she also entertained the idea of hiring all black waiters for her brother’s wedding to recreate an antebellum south atmosphere.

The response was swift. The Food Network cancelled her show and Deen hid from the public eye. This posed huge issues for the rollout of her Bag Lady Foundation—a non-profit that helps at-risk women and combats hunger. At the time of Deen’s controversy, the group had raised nearly $100,000. Being fundamentally tied to Deen’s public image, however, the organization was pushed into a period of hibernation after its celebrity figurehead receded from the spotlight.

Deen let the buzz die down, and came back a year later, announcing large investments in her reborn cooking brand. The Bag Lady Foundation finally began its charitable activity, too. The star’s year in hiding, however, delayed the implementation of basic needs funding, and singularly prevented the foundation from pursuing its mission.

In 2003, Martha Stewart was indicted on securities fraud. Stewart sold off 4,000 shares of stock in ImClone Systems, Inc., shortly before the USDA declined to approve a new cancer drug designed by the company. The timing aroused authorities’ suspicion, leading to her trial and eventual conviction. Stewart would spend 5 months in a federal correction facility.

Stewart made her public comeback in 2005, and her company—Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia—once again became profitable the following year.

The fallout from her conviction dissipated, and Stewart returned to her former levels of prestige. Her philanthropic work is widely celebrated. In 2006, she put forth $5 million to open the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, aimed at innovating geriatric practices.

At the time of her legal troubles, however, Stewart’s money became toxic. A long-time donor to the Democratic party, Stewart had given Hillary Clinton $1,000 for her electoral campaign. Following the indictment, Clinton opted to donate Stewart’s donation, giving the money to charity instead of using it for her campaign.

While non-profits, foundations, and campaigns are always looking for funding to further their goals, sometimes the money they receive costs more in public relations than it’s worth in real terms.

Don Imus—famous political shock jock known for his “insult humor”—went too far on his Imus in the Morning program in April, 2007, when he referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as a group of “nappy-headed hos.” The backlash was immediate. The following day, activists and public figures began calling for his cancellation. Sponsors pulled out from the show due to the racist comments. MSNBC disavowed itself of Imus’ simulcast. Before long, the show was dropped by CBS.

Every year, the lewd program would pursue a goal loftier than meting out satire, ridicule, and—in the aforementioned case—racist stereotypes. The show presented an annual telethon raising money for the Imus Ranch, a retreat that allowed cancer-stricken children the chance to live an authentic cowboy life, helping them cultivate self-esteem, live healthily, and commiserate with other kids suffering from similar ailments.

The annual telethon raised millions of dollars for the highly expensive operation via the listenership of Imus’ massively syndicated radio program. The abrupt cessation of the show’s broadcast starved the ranch of it’s bedrock source of annual revenue.

The ranch would survive until 2014, when Imus announced its closing due to personal health issues. His infamous racial slurs, however, caused a massive financial headache for his charitable program.

In September, 2014, a South African court convicted Oscar Pistorius of culpable homicide (the South African equivalent to manslaughter) in the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. A month later, the court sentenced him to 5 years in prison (though he’ll likely only serve a year).

The international sports phenomenon, nicknamed “bladerunner,” sky-rocketed to fame in 2012 as the first amputee athlete to compete in the Olympics. Born with fibular hemimelia (the absence of fibula), Pistorius had both of his legs amputated when he was 11 months old. This physical limitation did not stop him, however, from becoming one of the most widely-recognized sprinters in the world.

In an effort to use his global celebrity in a positive way, Pistorius announced in February 2013 that he was starting a foundation in conjunction with the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow to help develop affordable prosthetic legs for children in Africa. Two days after this announcement, Pistorius fatally shot Reeva Steenkamp in a locked bathroom at his home, claiming that he thought she was an intruder.

Unsurprisingly, his foundation never got off the ground, and the university he was working with lost a high-profile spokesperson for their humanitarian goals.

The former mayor of Toronto is no stranger to controversy. In fact, you could view him as a case study in PR perseverance. He has weathered the fallout from all manner of public faux-pas, ranging from public intoxication to the use of racially charged language. Not to mention being filmed smoking crack cocaine while holding public office.

After being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Ford stepped down as mayor in September 2014, and handed his brother the reins of his reelection campaign. One particular lapse in judgment involving his charitable foundation, however, nearly ousted him from the mayoralty earlier.

In 2012, Ford sent out direct mail fundraising appeals to a number of lobbyists, requesting money for his non-profit program supporting Toronto-area high school football teams. This, of course, was a mayor directly soliciting political lobbyists for money.

City officials were not pleased, and initiated a vote that would have required the mayor to return thousands of dollars received from lobbyists. Rob Ford should have recused himself from the vote, but did not. Political opponents took him to court for breaking Ontario law requiring the disclosure of conflicts of interest, where the judge issued a stayed ruling kicking Ford out of office.

He appealed, and ended up winning the case, allowing him to not only keep his job but also the thousands of dollars he received from lobbyists.

The incident tied up foundation funding in legal limbo for over a year while opposing sides duked it out in court. Certain public positions require due diligence regarding particular matters—in this case asking lobbyists for money. By breaking this rule, Ford threw the receipt of valuable foundation funding into doubt.

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