During a conversation at an event on giving back and philanthropy hosted by Friends of Ebonie, I remembered the conversation steering toward this question.
The impetus was a conversation about comments (or lack of comments) at the time from Michael Jordan about the impact his shoes have on the black community. Just type in “people fighting over Jordans” on Google, and you will find numerous stories about this sad reality, as well as the absence of stories of Michael Jordan doing something to address it.
With the amount of money made off of his community by selling these shoes, the question was raised about whether Jordan should feel more obligated to speak out about issues affecting the community that has made him rich.
Jordan is no stranger to philanthropy – his celebrity golf tournament has reportedly raised $7 million since 2001, and in 2008, Forbes included Jordan in an article on the most generous celebrities on the list of the Forbes Celebrity 100.
But at the root of this question, I think, is not his desire or willingness to give money to causes, but questioning Jordan’s record on speaking up on social issues or political issues. And I think this is at the root of many discussions about celebrities with a big brand, and how they choose to use it for good.
I think that, while donating to charities is great, stopping there is only a half-realized potential. It is like settling for a lay-up when you know you can get the slam dunk – lay ups score point too, but when you can get the chance to dunk, you have the chance to score and make a statement that will only enhance your impact.
Celebrities that avoid using their brand to address social issues are going for the finger roll and missing the true impact they could have. In the case of the Jordan conversation, the ridiculous pricing and availability of the shoes does not realistically meet demand at all, and Jordan can’t ignore the role those factors play in the violence and misplaced fervor that his shoes generates in the black community, nor should he shy away from his role in doing what he can to address that problem.
Also, philanthropy's etymology means “love of humanity”. Behind every act of philanthropy is the act of love towards another. Every philanthropist should be motivated by this notion at their core. This can manifest itself in several ways – financial giving, community service, random acts of kindness. For a celebrity, their influence as well as their checkbook are their greatest weapons. The combination of influence, resources, and motivation can be a powerful agent for change.
This is not to say that celebrities are under some obligation to be more proactive in seeking out causes than non-celebrities, nor does it mean that celebrities are more beholden to a philanthropic lifestyle/mindset than the next person. I actually believe that everyone should want to do something to make things better for the next person wherever and however they can if they have the means to do so.
But celebrities have earned so much influence in the world based on their talents, abilities, connections, and God’s will. And that influence is also based on people’s appreciation and love of those gifts.
Celebrities should not feel obligated to give back; that suggests that the act is not sincere or driven by love. Obligation sounds like a transaction of mutual business interests. No. Celebrities should not feel obligated to give back because it provides an easy excuse to not give – they owe no one anything.
Celebrities should feel compelled to give back by the love, respect, and admiration they feel for those around them who have given so much of their love to celebrities. With this foundation, any time a celebrity should have something to say, they will be compelled to say it. And celebrities will always be compelled to embrace the outsize impact they can have, any time they have the means to do so.