Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

March 23, 2007

American Idol’s show-biz philanthropy

Aiming to do some good with the fortune it is raking in and focus the attention of its estimated 26 million to 28 million weekly viewers on the impact of extreme poverty on children and young people in Africa and America, TV juggernaut American Idol is turning to philanthropy.

The philanthropic initiative, “Idol Gives Back,” aims to raise funds and awareness peaking in broadcasts April 24 and 25 during which celebrity artists will appear and the top six finalists this season will sing songs about compassion and hope.

So far, reflecting its roots in the breakthrough marketing prowess of the Fox reality-TV phenomenon, Idol Gives Back has been big on show-biz.

But sadly, reflecting the arrogance of much of organized philanthropy, the effort has been short on details or respect for the individual donors it is counting on.

During the show’s March 8 broadcast, host Ryan Seacrest announced plans for Idol Gives Back, and American Idol that day published a news blog on the charitable effort.

The blog said sponsors Coca-Cola and AT&T and other partners would donate money for every vote cast for contestants on the April 24 show, that Ford Motor Company also would contribute, and that viewers during the April 25 show would be able to make donations using toll-free lines and the Internet.

The Philanthropy Journal phoned Scott Grogin, senior vice president for corporate communications at Fox Broadcasting, to find out exactly how much money American Idol and Fox planned to give to the philanthropic effort, how much money its sponsors and partners would give for every vote cast, how much Ford would give, and how much American Idol expected the entire effort to raise.

Grogin said he could not answer the questions but that someone would get back to PJ, and that any communication would have to be by email.

The response came this week – a week-and-a-half later – from Andrea Lewis, who says she works for Richard Curtis, a movie director and writer who Lewis says is one of the driving forces behind Idol Gives Back.

So how much will American Idol and/or Fox contribute? Will those contributions also involve matches? And if so, how will they work?

“We are aiming to maximize the funds raised,” Lewis says. “No specific numbers are available to you at this stage.”

What is the aggregate contribution that American Idol, Fox and corporate sponsors together are likely to make?

“We expect corporate contributions in the double-digit millions,” Lewis says. “We are working together to maximize the contributions for Idol Gives Back and the overall contributions amount will be announced once it has been totaled after the event.”

What is likely to be the total of all contributions from Idol, Fox, sponsors and viewers?

“We are working to maximize the contributions both from sponsors, philanthropists and the general public,” Lewis says. “Every dollar raised has the capacity to change someone’s life so we will be happy with the final outcome, whatever it may be -- clearly the more donated, the more lives we can help change and save so we’d like the total be as big as possible. Raising awareness of the issues is equally important.”

There you have it: Maximizing hype, minimizing substance.

American Idol, which has made an art form of reality TV and product placement, and transformed wannabe amateurs into entertainment superstars, surely will generate huge bucks and a lot of attention for the cause of helping impoverished children.

As multi-media entertainment guru Martha Stewart would say, that’s a good thing.

But American Idol could do much more: Instead of simply touting its philanthropy in advance, and treating its viewers like automated teller machines, American Idol could be engaging them for the long-term in philanthropy and the cause of addressing poverty.

American Idol has a loyal and enormous audience with which it could be sharing the details of how it plans to practice its philanthropy.

Each week until its big two-day philanthropic extravaganza, American Idol could be educating over 25 million viewers about the impact of poverty and the difference that individuals and organization can make by getting involved.

And to accomplish its stated goal of “maximizing” its philanthropy, American Idol should spell out exactly how much it and its sponsors plan to give, including the formula they will use for providing matching funds.

In letting viewers know exactly how much their participation will generate in matching funds, American Idol might generate even more support.

By treating its viewers like donors, cultivating them and engaging them with substantive information instead of shallow hype, American Idol not only could increase the impact of its inaugural philanthropic undertaking, but it also could transform an unprecedented show-biz phenomenon into breakthrough mass philanthropy -- and create a model for other mass media.

That would be something worth idolizing.


  • At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi Todd,
    When I was reading your article, my first thought was to be angry at you for criticizing American Idol's effort. My thought was to be happy they were trying - give them a break - they are entertainers, not philanthropists and social workers. But then, I did a little research. Where is the money going? What percentage of the money is getting to the root cause? Are they funding best practices? Who decides what programs will be funded and the ever important question to a fundraiser: How can my organization apply? These answers are not readily available even at their Idol Gives Back website or the Charity Projects Entertainment Fund website at
    Don't get me wrong. I am thrilled they are raising money. My advice to Idol to make this effort the most effective would be to partner with an existing organization that can maximize their efforts. One that has a reputation for distributing funds effectively and efficiently, that knows how to communicate the true needs and, to your point, one that can help educate the donor about the real issues and what can be done locally and globally. I would feel much better about making a contribution if that were the case.
    PS - Alexander Youth Network is hosting "Alexander Idol" this Thursday at 6pm. The kids are putting on a talent show. Join us if you can make it to Charlotte!

  • At 5:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Mr. Cohen makes persuasive points regarding American Idol's announced philanthropic effort to help alleviate poverty. Like massive, often celebrity-driven efforts to jump in and help after tidal waves and hurricanes, it's nice - but it misses the point.

    First, immediate relief is good, but the need is ongoing and should be structured through organizations that are already prepared to provide assistance in an ongoing manner.

    Second, just as giving begins at home, so, too, should relief. Every donor is sending their dollars to AI, right past local organizations that are desperate for support.

    Third, I couldn't agree more with Mr. Cohen's well-articulated critique that good fund-raising practice demands accountability - and AI is NOT doing so when it only provides vague answers behind the Hollywood Hype.

    Congratulations on a well-stated viewpoint that ought to be heard. And let's all give to our local charities, who are counting on us!

    Bill Hinman, CFRE
    William Hinman Consulting
    Winston-Salem, NC

  • At 1:56 PM, Blogger JJ Anastasoff said…

    As American Idol is new at philanthropy and at giving, I look to the excellent nonprofits that will receive donations from American Idol to be experienced coaches.

    American Idol has provided a wonderful platform for these nonprofits to develop an entirely new audience as long term donors who will intelligently engage. Great organizations like Malaria No More, Save the Children and Nothing but Net can and I'm sure will use this opportunity to educate millions of potential long term donors. For Anne and others doing great work in the US and abroad, I found the answers to some of her questions at

    ...and I look forward to sitting down with my family and voting for an American Idol singer for the first time.

    Jennifer Anastasoff
    CEO, BuildingBlocks International
    Special Advisor to the CEO, AngelPoints Inc.

  • At 11:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Last night I waited on hold to dontae. When I finally connected with a voice I asked her about percentages. She had no idea but she did comment that they were going to be taxed on all the contributions. I am not knowledgeable in the fundraising area but that struck me as concerning and surprising that a nonprofit was not structured for this purpose.


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