Because exposure and awareness are important for any cause, celebrity activists can be a powerful game-changer for social impact organizations. A celebrity’s fan base, social media following, and PR opportunities empower them to shed light on a problem and promote nonprofits that are making a difference.
Whether they’ve started their own organizations or partner with existing ones, here are seven celebrity activists using their platform to fight for causes close to their heart.
1. Alicia Keys
ORGANIZATION: KEEP A CHILD ALIVE
Alicia Keys’ Songs in A Minor is a powerhouse debut album. It went number one on the Billboard 200 chart, won five Grammy Awards in 2002, and has sold 12 million copies. Although she was only 20 years old at the time, Keys traveled the world as an artist and continued writing and recording. But she soon added nonprofit co-founder and activist to her resumé.
Keys teamed up with activist Leigh Blake to create Keep a Child Alive in 2003. The organization supports and partners with grassroots organizations in Africa to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS and fight the stigma and discrimination that perpetuate the crisis. For example, in Durban, South Africa, Keep a Child Alive’s Blue Roof Wellness Centre provides testing, counseling, psychosocial support, and meals to children and families struggling with the illness.
Each year, Keys and Keep a Child Alive host The Black Ball, a fundraising gala and concert. Chris Rock hosted the 2015 event, which raised $3.8 million and featured performances by Keys, Lenny Kravitz, Wale, and Lion Babe.
2. Glenn Close
CAUSE: MENTAL HEALTH
ORGANIZATION: BRING CHANGE 2 MIND
Glenn Close has been acting in television and film for over 40 years, appearing in movies such as The Big Chill, Fatal Attraction, 101 Dalmatians, The Stepford Wives, and many more. She has six Academy Award nominations, the most recent being for Best Actress in the 2011 film Albert Nodds. But off-camera, Glenn Close is the co-founder of Bring Change 2 Mind, a nonprofit organization working to end the stigma attached to mental illness.
The Close family knows firsthand the challenges faced by people living with mental illness. Close’s sister has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and her nephew is living with schizoaffective disorder.
Bring Change 2 Mind produces public service announcements and organizes social media campaigns to get people talking about their experiences with mental illness and end stigma and discrimination.
3. Stephen Curry
ORGANIZATION: UNITED NATIONS FOUNDATION
Stephen Curry is the golden boy of the NBA. Just when you thought he couldn’t top himself after winning the Most Valuable Player Award in 2015, he won again in 2016 by an unprecedented unanimous vote.
But between practices, travel, games, and Nike commercials, Curry is helping the United Nations Foundation protect families from deadly malaria. In 2016, he partnered with the global organization to fundraise for their Nothing But Nets #CallYourShot campaign, which provides bed nets to people in Tanzania, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Burundi, and South Sudan.
In fact, Curry has been supporting Nothing But Nets since he was a student-athlete at Davidson College. “I’ve seen firsthand that a simple net can save a life,” he says in a video calling on teammates, friends, and fans to call to get involved in the fight against malaria.
4. Michael J. Fox
CAUSE: PARKINSON’S DISEASE
ORGANIZATION: THE MICHAEL J. FOX FOUNDATION FOR PARKINSON’S RESEARCH
While Michael J. Fox is perhaps best known for starring as Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy, his foundation is shaping the future of research on Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative neurological disorder that can affect motor function, memory, and mood, as well as manifest in other symptoms.
Fox found fame acting in the 1980s TV series “Family Ties”, and went on to star in shows like “Spin City” and “The Good Wife” and films such as Teen Wolf and Stuart Little. He was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s in 1991 and shared his condition publicly in 1998. In 2000, he founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation with the mission to find a cure and improve therapies with aggressive, risk-taking research.
Since its inception, the foundation has funded more than $450 million in research on Parkinson’s Disease. Its work focuses on a wide range of things, including treatments focused on enzyme activity, a vaccine to slow the disease, and the creation of a single scale for measuring dyskinesia, the involuntary movements characterizing Parkinson’s most visible symptom.
5. Angelina Jolie Pitt
CAUSE: REFUGEE WELFARE
ORGANIZATION: UNITED NATIONS REFUGEE AGENCY
Angelina Jolie has acted in many Hollywood blockbusters, including Mr. & Mrs. Smith, A Mighty Heart, and Maleficent. But after shooting the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in war-torn Cambodia, the actress began a life of humanitarian work.
The experience moved her to contact the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to get involved. In her first year with the organization, Jolie visited refugee camps in Sierra Leone and Tanzania, donated $1 million to aid Afghan refugees, and was named a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.
Jolie has now been working with the agency for 15 years and has traveled on dozens of field missions. She currently serves as Special Envoy For Refugee Issues and continues to promote awareness and aid for displaced people worldwide.
6. Willie Nelson
CAUSE: FAMILY FARMS
ORGANIZATION: FARM AID
Willie Nelson has been a fixture of country music since the 1960s, having released an astonishing 68 studio albums. Fans love him for songs like “Always on My Mind” and “On the Road Again” and continue to see the 83-year-old as he tours across the country. Nelson’s influence, though, extends beyond the airwaves and country charts.
In 1985, Nelson organized the first Farm Aid concert with Neil Young and John Mellencamp. More than 30 years later, the event continues to bring together thousands to celebrate family farmers, raise money, and inspire people to choose family farm food. Every year, Nelson and Farm Aid bring together some of the world’s greatest artists to promote their cause. Past performers include Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, B.B. King, The Beach Boys, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, Jewel, Tegan and Sara, and Matisyahu.
Since its beginning, Farm Aid has raised more than $50 million in support of family farmers, with no signs of slowing down.
CAUSE: TECHNICAL EDUCATION FOR DISADVANTAGED YOUTH
The world lost a man and gained a legend on April 21, 2016. People of all backgrounds admired Prince for his artistry and musicianship, but his willingness to transgress boundaries of gender, race, and sexuality inspired people to accept and share parts of themselves that might have stayed hidden.
What most people didn’t know was that Prince quietly worked with social impact leaders on a number of causes, one of which was connecting disadvantaged youth with technical education and careers. It was a conversation with Prince that inspired CNN commentator and activist Van Jones to create #YesWeCode. Prince encouraged and supported the organization and performed at its launch in 2014.
#YesWeCode is on a mission “to connect 100,000 low-opportunity young adults to high-paying careers in technology.” The nonprofit connects disadvantaged young people with resources to learn how to code. Their Coding Corps for young adults provides technical training and apprenticeships, helping them break into the thriving web development industry.
While Prince did not publicize his activism and philanthropy, friends have begun to spread the word of his advocacy. His legacy of social justice will, like his music, continue to influence the world.
Actors, musicians, and athletes are in a unique position to affect social change simply because their voice is amplified by fame. While none of this work could be done without the tireless commitment of nonprofit professionals and volunteers, many causes have benefitted from a celebrity ambassador or supporter. Consider recruiting a public figure to get involved at your organization and help grow your audience and impact.