Fame and Philanthropic Currency: Celebrities and Moguls Trade Success for Global Change
By Tom Watson, 4/26/2007
The halls of the Beverly Hilton are draped with elegant black and white photographs of stars from Hollywood’s golden age. Among the 3,000 attendees of the 10th annual Milken Institute Global Conference – the philanthropists, media titans, private equity chiefs, and economists – mingle the tastefully-framed images of Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, and Lauren Bacall. And there among them is Kirk Douglas – not a ghostly portrait at all, but a living man, smaller and frailer perhaps at 90, but as forthcoming and eloquent as any speaker at this 21st century confab of the monied and powerful.
The confluence of celebrity and philanthropy has very much been a central theme at this year’s Milken conference, and no one personified that collision as much as Kirk Douglas. In a softer voice slightly slurred by a stroke, Douglas was open about his life as an actor, missed opportunities, and the challenges of fame and fortune and aging.
“You know, a stroke is a very difficult thing. You get depressed. Do you know what my wife told me when I was lying there moaning about my condition? She said ‘get your ass out of bed and go see the speech therapist.’ And what I found was this: the cure for depression is to think of others, to do for others. You can always find something to be grateful for.”
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That principle was laid out during the panel on “Entrepreneurial Philanthropy” by Don Randel, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Randel argued that public civility, an organized well-regulated society, and the rule of law expressed “a kind of trust,” a common belief that allows those in the society to believe in institutions.
“The culture of philanthropy rests on the same values that the great success of American business and free markets rest on,” he said.
Teresa Heinz Kerry, serving on the same panel, took that theme of civic trust a step further, arguing that American volunteerism was what spurred its philanthropic instinct.
“Because you had to cross the country, you had to band together and persevere, there is a real history of volunteerism that you don’t experience in other countries, and I’ve lived all over the world. All the kinds of group support systems – it’s an American thing, it doesn’t happen anyplace else. It is the great strength of America, going beyond yourself. That is why American philanthropy is so dominant.”
Michael Milken noted that “individuals give today at least four times what comes out of corporations and foundations – most of the money being given is coming from individuals.” And while that’s true, the Nobel-winning economists on his panel focused not on individuals, but on systems; economists tend to shy away from philanthropy as a major economic driver – even though the combination of individual philanthropy and overseas remittances (money sent back by immigrants to their countries of origin) – amounts to half a trillion dollars each year.
The economists Gary Becker and Kenneth Arrow tussled lightly over the role of government in the increasingly capitalist world society, but really around the edges it was an argument over just how much good light regulation could do to continue to spur capitalist growth. They approached the world’s healthcare needs – from disease in the developing world to the aging population of western nations – from a purely demographic-economic standpoint: there are more aging people, so a market for caring for aging people is of value. Malarial and other deaths from poor water will decrease when market conditions align to fix the problem. The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa has discouraged investments in higher education because people who don’t believe they’re going to live very long don’t invest in learning and aspiration.
A bit bracing, shall we say, like the weather this week in Los Angeles.
But sometimes the truth is best served with a chilly breeze, especially in a world that celebrates its philanthropist-capitalists on business magazine covers in increasing numbers. Becker was merely voicing a common perception when he stated that allowing markets to create social change – in their own time, of course – “is the greatest gift capitalism has provided.”
While traditional philanthropy is honored here (there are any number of big-name foundation founders here, from Ted Turner to Sumner Redstone to Eli Broad), it’s innovation and collaboration that are the watchwords; they overlap with capitalism and creating markets. It’s no accident that Milken launched its first philanthropy track this year – less than 12 months after Warren Buffett’s historic gift and in the cultural wash of increased media attention to giving.
And it was no accident that Milken salted his discussion of philanthropy with very public figures.
Michael J. Fox spoke bluntly to a crowded ballroom throng during a panel on celebrity and philanthropy.
“I always tell people,” he said, “that I didn’t volunteer for this job, I was recruited.”
“This job,” of course, is the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which is dedicated to ensuring the development of a cure for Parkinson’s disease within this decade. Fox’s Foundation has raised and distributed more than $100 million toward research into Parkinson’s and related conditions, and the still-youthful actor has become a vibrant spokesperson for increased Federal funding of medical research and for stem cell research.
“When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s back in 1991, I was 29 years old and it was like being hit by a train,” he said. “But eventually I realized that I was part of a community and I felt a responsibility to use my energy, to use my profile to garner some attention, to draw some attention to this situation.”
Celebrity helps, but it doesn’t make things happen – that’s been a central theme among the Hollywood types here at Milken.
“You can have a passion but things don’t just fall out of the sky. It really is a matter of making it happen,” said Fox. That meant creating a “fast-track” foundation, staffing it up, working with scientists, and hitting the political trail to change minds and open budgets.
A couple of years ago, Sherry Lansing was the all-powerful CEO of Paramount Pictures, and the first woman to head a major movie studio. But as she approached 60, Lansing told her bosses she was opting out – changing her life.
“I think you have a genetic need to give back,” she said during a panel discussion on second careers in philanthropy. “There are people who think you are mentally ill – they just cannot understand that you don’t want to get more, that you can walk away when you’re 60. But I must tell you, I’ve felt younger than I have ever felt – I feel like when I was 22 with the whole world before me. And in the nonprofit community I’ve met the purest, most decent people I’ve ever met in my life. I get up every day with total joy. The expression I use is that I’m rewired and not retired.”
Lansing’s new passion is philanthropy: the Sherry Lansing Foundation works to improve educatiom, fight cancer, and get older Americans more involved in voluntary projects and philanthropy. Lansing’s Older Adult Civic Engagement movement seeks to rally Americans over 60 – a “demographic powerhouse that is larger, healthier, more successful and better educated than any other in history” – and empower them to contribute their strengths and expertise to community improvement.
“You know, in my generation, we’re all supposed to retire. But I believe this is the prime time of your life, and I want to build a movement to put these people back to work to make the world a better place. I want to change the world.”
Actors Bradley Whitford and his wife Jane Kaczmarek founded Clothes Off Our Back as a reaction to the glitz of awards ceremonies in Hollywood. But Whitford said that part of his role in the charity has been discussing philanthropy with his fellow celebrities.
“You know, you sometimes feel like you’re on the receiving end of the suffering Olympics,” he said. “You didn’t ask for this, you didn’t expect this when celebrity hit you. I try to help them get over their self-consciousness about it. It’s … the media that sometimes makes people in Hollywood wary. We’ve got a bad reputation for activism.”
But he suggested that more celebrities are looking for ways to “spend” their fame wisely. And they’re finding their own, sometimes unexpected dividend. Said Kaczmarek:
“I started tithing, and when I did I started doing research on charities I was giving to, and I was inspired, as an antidote to so much of the cynicism you see around us. I think maybe I like myself a lot more.”
This year, the crowd of boldface names included Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, Sumner Redstone, John and Teresa Heinz Kerry, Boone Pickens, Michael J. Fox, Andre Agassi, Kirk Douglas, Sydney Pollack, Frank Gehry, Sherry Lansing, Quincy Jones, Mort Zuckerman, and Eli Broad among others – but Milken himself also stands out.
After all, his is a remarkable story of personal rejuventation – at 60, Milken has gone from being known as the controversial financier of two decades ago to a leader in innovative economic views, changing capitalism, and American philanthropy.
The Global Conference is a product of the Milken Institute, a 40-person think tank with staff in Los Angeles and Washington DC, which focuses on broad economic issues that affect change; it aims to accelerate that change by bringing together economists with government types, business leaders, financiers, and philanthropists. Oh, and Hollywood celebrities, of course. Milken clearly knows the value of a well-known face, and he easily salts the Institute’s work with connections to a who’s who in the entertainment world.
There are other projects, some of long-standing, including the Milken Family Foundation; through the Milken National Educator Awards, the MFF has awarded a total of about $54 million to more than 2,000 teachers. And there’s FasterCures/The Center for Accelerating Medical Solutions – a non-profit “action tank” formed under the auspices of the Milken Institute with a mission to identify and implement global solutions to accelerate the process of discovery and clinical development of new therapies for the treatment of deadly and debilitating diseases.
But the Milken Institute Global Conference is Mike Milken’s public face on the powerful world of insiders, world leaders, and CEOs – its success gives Milken even more entree than he enjoyed before; its platform allows deals to happen, deals that are increasingly philanthropic in nature. It was no accident that this year’s conference was the first to feature a full philanthropic track, and that leaders in the social entrepreneurship area were very much in evidence.
Indeed, Jacqueline Novogratz of the innovative Acumen Fund seemed to address her remarks directly to the boldface names in attendance:
“The paternalism of charity no longer works as a framework for the world we inhabit together…There is a huge hunger among the elites of the world, and we should think about how to deploy that, and not in a particularly paternalistic way.”
And, she added within earshot of the economists:
“We cannot live in a world that is only market-driven.”