Buyer Beware: Celebrity Pet Charities are All Bark, No Bite

March 10, 2010  |  

Singer Wyclef Jean found himself on the defensive after copies of tax returns for his Yele Haiti Foundation were made public by website, The Smoking Gun.  The documents revealed that Yele purchased $250,000 in air time from a production company that Jean co-owns.

Jean responded to the criticism with a tearful YouTube video in which he vehemently defended his organization, Yele’s books are open and transparent, and we have a clean bill of health by an external auditor every year since we started.”

In the days since the allegations, several tax experts have gone on record as saying that Jeans organization did not engage in any wrongdoing by paying his production company with funds from his non-profit. In a Washington Post article, former head of the IRS unit overseeing non-profits was quoted as saying, The tax rules do not prohibit related party transactions.

Jean’s absolution of all guilt was made official by the Queen of all media, Oprah Winfrey, when she welcomed him onto her couch to discuss the current devastation in Haiti.  Not long after the interview, we learned that Yele would be hiring new accountants to oversee its finances.

Now that Jean has accepted responsibility for the accounting improprieties and implemented changes to ensure that Yele won’t repeat the mistakes which brought him so much unwanted attention, our inclination is to move on. Jean was born in Haiti and exudes an affection for his country and his people that is undeniable.  The man is genuine.  But the question that we need answered is, can he do the work?

The question now becomes one of competence. Most celebrity charities are merely tax shelters for their megastar owners. They are presided over by a skeleton staff which is not operationally or managerially prepared to spring into action when a tragedy strikes and they’re called to action. So what happens when text messages, tweets, and status updates cause celebrity pet charities to go viral and they’re called upon to do the work normally reserved for more well known organizations such as Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders?

The short answer is, #FAIL.  No matter how impassioned and forthright the celebrity head of a charity may be, the truth of the matter is that he or she is an artist, a figurehead for an organization which lacks the might and institutional maneuverability to impact sustainable change. These charities are perfectly positioned to hold Thanksgiving dinners for the homeless or hand out Christmas toys to underprivileged kids, but not to handle the raw carnage that we’re witnessing in Haiti.

Jean’s efforts are admirable, but his celebrity may be better utilized as an unwavering voice for the people of Haiti, who were first oppressed and then orphaned by the Western world. To Jean’s credit, he was making pleas on behalf of Haiti’s impoverished citizens long before the earthquake.  I first heard him on a local Atlanta radio station about 3 months before the tragedy, promoting a partnership between the Timberland Boot Company and Yele in which a portion of the sales from a particular brand of boot was to be donated to the foundation.

So this is in no way an indictment of Jean, or any other celebrity pet charity for that matter; It is, however, an assessment of their limitations. We cannot expect charities, which exist partly for tax purposes and partly for the promotion of a celebrity’s philanthropic image, to be responsive to the needs of any community. We can, however, give to celebrity charities in the hopes that they will blossom into larger, more fiscally responsible organization but, as always, buyer beware.

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