Hitching a charity's reputation to a single individual is a high-risk strategy that pays off—until it doesn't.
Déjà vu in celebrity charity land, as Jerry Lewis mumbled something (either "illiterate fag" or "illiterate faggot", it's hard to tell from the clip) during hour eighteen of the annual telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (EIN 13-1665552 Form 990). While the slur by Don Imus only impacted his charity causes indirectly, this time the offending words were part of a charity fundraising event, and of course with You Tube the clip will be seen by
It is unlikely that there will be any direct consequences. Mr. Lewis apologized relatively quickly (on Tuesday, according to the AP story). There's been no public comment that I know of from MDA or longtime supporters the International Association of Fire Fighters (labor union EIN 53-0088290 Form 990).
But the incident shows the risks inherent in such heavy reliance on a single celebrity a spokesperson for a multi-million dollar charity. We've talked about how the MDA telethon shows the durability of old media (and Don Imus' radiothon shows that even older media can still work), but it has its limitations. In both of these cases, the durability of a clip on YouTube ensures that the offending remark won't ever go away.
It's probably no coincidence that on the week of the telethon the Nationwide Foundation (EIN 31-6022301 Form 990) just released summary results of a survey that showed that Jerry Lewis is considered to be the most influential celebrity associated with charity causes, and that children and youth top the list of causes.
But that may or may not change: there's a generational difference in the results:
In addition to Jerry Lewis, older generations favored personalities like Bill Gates (health and education), former President Jimmy Carter (Habitat for Humanity) and Michael J. Fox (Parkinson’s disease).
Younger respondents showed support for causes like education and literacy, religion and hunger. They indicated that Oprah Winfrey (African children), Angelina Jolie (International children’s causes), U2’s Bono (world poverty) and Lance Armstrong (cancer) were effective in driving change. Generation Y showed more interest in international causes than older generations.
The reason I say may not change is that I always wonder whether these results measure the attitudes of different generations, or just attitudes that are typical of different age groups. It seems just as likely that as the current generation Y grows older, their charitable inclinations will also shift to resemble those of their parents.
But we should note that a charity that has taken a different approach to celebrity is PETA (EIN 52-1218336 Form 990), which is not dependent upon a single celebrity. In fact, PETA seems to pursue a strategy of having a stable of celebrity endorsers, so that the cause remains in the forefront, not the celebrity.
In this regard, it's also noteworthy that at MDA, the most highly paid individuals are (were) the CEO (the late) Robert Ross and director field operations Gerald Weinberg. The medical director makes exactly half the compensation of the operations director. At PETA, the most highly compensated individual is a veterinarian. It could be indicative of the relative priorities of the two organizations, but it may also reflect the fact that MDA raises roughly six times as much as PETA.
It seems to me that both Mr. Lewis and Mr. Imus involved themselves in charities, and specifically children's charities, to act as a counterbalance to a certain mean-spiritedness in their humor (it's just a guess on my part). But if that's so, I don't think it's a worthy argument to say that they should be let off the hook because of their charity work. They need to stop offering up mean-spiritedness as humor in a highly public forum—no amount of charity work excuses it.
(I'm looking forward to any mean-spirited comments from fans of Mr. Lewis and Mr. Imus, which I think prove my point about the misuse of charity to provide cover for anti-social behavior.)