Idol Charities Still Waiting For Funds

June 1, 2008       Michele Donohue      

Sure, there were lights and cameras. But, the charities that signed on for the televised fundraising edition of American Idol, the Idol Gives Back, still didn’t know how much money was going to be donated to them more than one month after the show’s April 9 airing. And while they will eventually receive cash, they will never know who donated the cash so that they can follow-up for further development.

The charities — Children’s Defense Fund, The Children’s Health Fund, The Global Fund, Make It Right, Malaria No More and Save the Children – were not told how the foundation would divide funds and won’t receive access to donor lists. A spokesperson for American Idol’s public relations firm, BWR Public Relations, said that the fundraising will continue and declined to release the amount raised. The spokesperson, who likewise declined to be identified, said the revenue was comparable to last year’s $76 million.

Some of the benefiting charities didn’t seem to sweat the details. “It was great exposure. It will help us in the long run to get our name out there. That’s what we are most excited for,” said Ed Shelleby, spokesman for Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), a child advocacy nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “It’s an opportunity to serve as an introduction to people who might not have heard of us otherwise.”

Said Shelleby: “It’s only the second year they have done this, so they are still figuring out how to divvy up the funds and how that works.” He said that interest spiked for the organization, celebrating 35 years this year, after the show. “We couldn’t have asked for a better birthday present. It’s just such a fantastic thing that they do and we couldn’t be happier.”

Charity Projects Entertainment Fund (CPEF) worked with American Idol and the Fox network last year to distribute more than $76 million collected during the two-night special. CPEF’s board includes Idol judge and producer Simon Fuller and Idol executive producer and Freemantle Media North America CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz. CPEF awarded $63.4 million in grants and used $5 million to pay for the campaign and other costs, according to CPEF. The board will discuss how to use the balance. CPEF plans to release official financial statements after completing an audit.

This year, the funds will be distributed by the newly-created Idol Gives Back Foundation with a board that includes Fuller and Frot-Coutaz.

Carole Sumkin, vice president of development at The Children’s Health Fund (CHF), said the New York City-based nonprofit saw a jump in Web traffic after the show and it “cultivated a wonderful boon to the organization.” CHF also benefited from the Idol Foundation last year. The $7.5 million donation funded more than 100,000 medical, mental health and dental visits for medically underserved children and other programs.

It was also the second time American Idol donated to Save the Children (STC), a Westport, Conn.-based nonprofit dedicated to assisting disadvantaged children. The organization has a global reach, but American Idol requested that this year’s donations be used specifically for the United States program.

“It was thrilling and an honor. We’re incredibly excited and incredibly grateful that they understood our value,” said Mark Shriver, vice president and managing director for U.S. programs. He said that the organization provided American Idol with an accountability structure and where the money would be applied.

Last year, STC received $13.5 million from American Idol and an additional $1 million from Allstate Insurance Company, announced during the show, to fund the organization’s education and health initiatives in Africa and United States.

Shriver said that American Idol exposure has brought STC’s message to a wide audience — from his 13-year-old neighbor to government officials on Capitol Hill.

“They have educated a generation of people,” said Shriver. Randy Jackson, a judge on the show, serves as STC’s first United States Programs Ambassador. “It raises the visibility that kids live in poverty all across the country.”

But interest in the charities might wane, leaving no way for the organizations to contact American Idol donors since the list is not made available to them. “It’s hard to develop donors if you don’t know who they are,” said Tim Seiler, director of Public Service and The Fund Raising School at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. “The response in a call-in program like that, a lot of times, is a spontaneous and impulsive one triggered by a stimulus — which in this case sounds like it’s celebrities. So the response might be as much to the celebrity as it is to the cause.”

Sumkin said although CHF will not receive donor lists, working with American Idol opened up other opportunities for the organization. “It’s great for the perception of us in the nonprofit world,” said Sumkin, who likened the American Idol partnership as a “stamp of approval” when working with institutional donors. The organization was recently selected as a beneficiary of Fox Sports Supports, a new on-air charity awareness campaign. Fox will run CHF’s campaign during the 2008-2009 National Football League (NFL) season and postseason, ending with the National Football Conference (NFC) Championship Game.

Celebrities affiliated with the beneficiary nonprofits came out to show support on Idol Gives Back. Actress Reese Witherspoon, a CDF board member, spoke on the organization’s behalf while actor Brad Pitt discussed Make It Right, his own initiative to rebuild the New Orleans Lower 9th Ward area decimated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Pre-taped appearances included presidential candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain and a pledge from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for 20 million anti-malaria bed nets from the United Kingdom’s government.

“We are learning how these charitable opportunities maximize our leverage,” said Sumkin, who was enthusiastic about star-powered donor events. “I hope that this continues. It will be a trend resurrected by American Idol and maybe we’ll see more of it.” NPT

NonProfit  Times
The Leading Business Publication For Nonprofit Management