Band Aid 30 backlash: Celebrity charity model losing lustre

Amid backlash over Band Aid 30's Ebola relief song, fundraising strategists say philanthropy is tilting more towards grassroots campaigns and "clicktivism," and away from celebrity-driven fundraising.

'The celebrity telethon for charity is dead,' fundraising strategist says

Singer Bob Geldof attends a press conference about the 30th anniversary edition of the 1980s poverty benefit project Band Aid. The 2014 version of the supergroup's song, aimed at benefiting Ebola victims, has been criticized as being patronizing to West Africans. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

Even charities want to be cool. But in the age of viral media and a more cynical and sophisticated public, fundraising strategists say philanthropy is tilting more towards grassroots campaigns and "clicktivism," and away from rock star benefit songs and celebrity-hosted telethons.

"Do they know it's not the '80s anymore?" London's The Daily Mail asked asked in a headline about Band Aid this week, poking fun at the resurrection of Bob Geldof's supergroup.

That's a fair question when it comes to the celebrity-driven model of fundraising, said Caroline Riseboro, a senior VP of marketing and development at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

"I would say the celebrity telethon for charity is dead," said Riseboro, who estimates she has helped raise over $1 billion for various causes in her 15 years as a fundraiser.

A lot of the demise has to do with a fragmented media landscape.

Riseboro notes that socially conscious celebrities now connect directly with their fans online and so can influence good causes that way.

"Before, the best way to do it was to get a group of celebrities together so you could blast out a bunch of messages to a concentrated audience," she said.

At the same time, the face of the donor has also changed dramatically, said Anisa Mirza, CEO and co-founder of the Toronto-based charity crowdfunding platform Giveffect.

Cynical generation

A May Brookings Institution study also found that adult millennials, as they are sometimes called — those born after 1980 — may be a more cynical generation than their parents and grandparents.

"We're in a globalized society where we don't look at poverty like, ‘Oh, I want to help those poor kids in South Asia' anymore. It's a little bit cringe-y," said Mirza, who, at the age of 27, is a millennial herself.

"We don't want that traditional charity model of I'm up here, they're down there, and I'm giving them a helping hand."

That sentiment was made ever more acute this week amid a widespread backlash against Band Aid 30's re-recording of its 1984 charity single Do They Know It's Christmas.

While it may have warmed hearts in 1984 to see Band Aid form during the Ethiopian famine, the sound of millionaires in 2014 trying to help against the Ebola crisis rings hollow to critics, who have winced at lyrics like "A kiss of love can kill you / And there's death in every tear" and "There is no peace and joy in west Africa this Christmas."

Blur singer Damon Albarn blasted what he perceived to be a patronizing view of Africa in the song, lamenting "there are problems with our idea of charity."

Singer Adele snubbed Band Aid 30 founder Bob Geldof's invitation to help record the track, reportedly opting instead to donate quietly to Oxfam. Explaining why he also dropped out of Band Aid, British-Ghanian rapper Fuse ODG wrote in The Guardian that he was "sick of the whole concept of Africa … always being seen as diseased, infested and poverty-stricken."

You can buy a song, and there's nothing wrong with that. But enabling me to take action, get recognition — that reciprocity is really critical- Phil Haid, CEO and co-founder of Public Inc.

Compared to 30 years ago, Riseboro said accessible information and travel has allowed the public to educate themselves, "and challenge some of the statements that celebrities can make."

Another problem Mirza sees with some superstar-fuelled charity drives is that those efforts, noble as they are, sometimes lack an important ingredient: "Dignity," she said.

The reason "people maybe find some of these glamorized efforts distasteful … is because you have to think about when you give, how do feel? You feel good, but the other side of the equation is when someone receives, do they feel their dignity is intact?"

Phil Haid, CEO and co-founder of Public Inc., a Toronto marketing firm focusing on social issues, agrees that younger givers seek deeper engagement in their do-gooding than previous generations.

"You can buy a song, and there's nothing wrong with that," he said. "But enabling me to take action, get recognition — that reciprocity is really critical."

'Democratization of fundraising'

That may help to explain the power of breakthrough campaigns such as the ice-bucket challenge, which raised $16 million for ALS research in Canada.

Movember Canada also tapped into what Haid calls a "signifier" — in this case a "ridiculous moustache" — that acts as a showpiece, allowing men to wear their commitment to men's health on their faces.

Likewise, marathons or walks like Great Strides for cystic fibrosis let Cathy Mann participate in a meaningful way.

"Technology has brought a democratization of fundraising," said Mann, the co-ordinator at Ryerson University's fundraising management certificate program. "For the rest of the world, who don't have the ability to make eight-figure donations, we still want to feel like our contribution has meaning. So you become a part of something."

Band Aid detractors question whether a gathering of celebrity pop stars smacks of a bit of ego-polishing mixed in with their humanitarianism.

Mann said she still believes there are genuinely socially conscious celebrities such as Matt Damon, Bono and George Clooney, who use their profiles to help drive positive change in causes they truly care and know about.

It often depends on the celebrity, Haid said.

Nevertheless, non-profit groups traditionally expect a holiday bump in donations around this time of year, owing to donors feeling a deeper sense of giving. In Riseboro’s experience, the last quarter of the year generally makes up 25 per cent of the annual haul, and a Leger marketing survey this month for Imagine Canada found that 62 per cent of Canadians intend to donate to charity over the holidays.

No matter how you feel about efforts like Band Aid, they do raise money, Haid said. Geldof told the BBC this week that sales of Do They Know It's Christmas totalled $1.7 million within about five minutes on iTunes.

"Bob Geldof went back to what's comfortable," Haid said. "But if your heart's in the right place, my critique to the naysayers is, what are you doing on the issue? What difference could you make?"