No Fame, No Gain?

Words by Florence Robson

From the Band Aid supergroup to the star-studded line-up of Comic Relief, celebrities and charities have long paired up for good causes. In a time when influencers encourage us to do everything from buy a new top to adopt a new ‘wellness’ strategy, why not use their social clout to raise money and awareness? Yet, for as long as there have been celebrity partnerships, there has been criticism. How much do these stars really know about the issues they’re championing? Where is the money really going? Is this just a vanity project? This tension made national headlines earlier this year when MP David Lammy said of Comic Relief that it was “perpetuating tired and unhelpful stereotypes” by using “white saviours” to raise awareness of the poverty facing some Africans (Comic Relief Co-Founder Richard Curtis has since said they’ll stop sending celebrities abroad).

What does a healthy, productive and genuinely advantageous celebrity-charity partnership look like? This was the question up for debate at a conversation with Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning actor, writer and director, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and CEO of GEANCO Foundation, Afam Onyema, held at The Conduit.

GEANCO is a family-run organisation, whose mission is to save and transform lives in Nigeria. Their work includes partnering with rural clinics to ensure that women can deliver babies safely, enabling procedures like hip and knee replacements and partnerships with local organisations, including Brightland Academy – a school founded by Chiwetel’s mother. Chiwetel is an active champion for both GEANCO and Brightland, working alongside the foundation to improve the technology and facilities available to the academy’s students. His aim? “To give kids a world-class education and the tools to seize opportunities, whatever their goals”.

When asked how he identifies the right celebrities with whom to partner, Afam’s answer comes quickly and clearly: “Everything starts with relationships”. It’s a theme he’ll return to again and again throughout the conversation. The key, Afam says, is to look for someone not only who you’ll be proud to have representing and supporting you, but who you’ll be able to work alongside as an equal. “If GEANCO isn’t inconveniencing you, you’re not doing it right”, he laughs. “Finding people willing to do that is the challenge – and it doesn’t always work out”. He describes how he started out by going to PR firms and agencies, attempting to find people willing to champion his cause, but saw little success. “I realised they saw the collaboration as a risk.” In the end, he met Chiwetel through a contact in the film industry, who introduced them knowing their mutual connection to Nigeria.

Indeed, passion is the key word behind Chiwetel’s approach to building relationships with charitable causes. “I ask myself: what are you passionate about? What frustrates you? What are you willing to commit to for the rest of your life? For me, education is the key to a seismic revolution in equality”. He chooses to limit the organisations he works for, committing only to things he can influence directly, rather than working through third parties. “You have to be selective, as otherwise you’re in danger of becoming distant and it stops being real for you.”

Once you find a good match of influencer and cause, how do you ensure the collaboration is impactful? According to Afam, it’s all about leveraging what the talent is already doing –particularly as the bigger the star, the busier the schedule. This might be auctioning off a meet and-greet at a premiere or offering tickets to a high-profile concert. The reason Chiwetel’s support qualifies as “gold standard” says Afam, is that he doesn’t only get involved himself but is always happy to reach out to his friends and co-workers to ask them to engage. This willingness to step up has led to notable results, such as Benedict Cumberbatch speaking at a GEANCO event and Disney helping underwrite the cost of a new football pitch at Brightland Academy. “His actions have had genuine consequences”, says Afam. “You want to work with someone who asks ‘What can I do? What can we do together?’”.

To learn more about the work of GEANCO Foundation, visit their website.

To hear more about Chiwetel’s story in his own words, listen to our podcast interview with him.

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