Looking for Funding From the Entertainment Industry? Here Are Seven Things to Know

Everyone knows that the entertainment industry is rolling in money. We hear all the time about how this or that star got paid a bundle for a movie or made a killing from their latest concert tour. And we’re aware that Hollywood has minted several billionaire moguls like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Haim Saban. We also know that many Left Coast entertainment types have a heart, with a long history of embracing a wide variety of causes.

What’s less clear is how nonprofit fundraisers can access entertainment philanthropists and walk away with checks in hand. Many a prospecting trip to Los Angeles has ended in disappointment. You sit in traffic jams and come home with nothing. Which is why lots of fundraisers just skip this town altogether, focusing their California forays on the Bay Area.

Over the past year, Inside Philanthropy has drilled deep into entertainment industry giving. We’ve created profiles of over 85 top donors from both entertainment and media, and written scores of articles exploring what these folks are up to. Here are a few things we’ve learned.

Leaders in Entertainment Are Richer Than Ever

A few decades ago, the top earners in Hollywood made good money, but rarely the kind of money that piled up into major fortunes. Now, as in so many other industries, the winners in entertainment are growing seriously wealthy—making the kind of money that no individual can spend in one lifetime and can become the basis for a sizeable philanthropic enterprise. Globalization is a key reason for this, with soaring demand for American entertainment products abroad, in places like China.

In 2014, according to Forbes, some 40 celebrities made over $50 million. The list included Robert Downey, Jr. ($80M), Ellen DeGeneres ($75M), and Lady Gaga ($59M). That kind of money accumulates over time, and the website Celebrity Net Worth reports that a number of stars are now sitting on very large fortunes—like Tom Cruise ($470M), Johnny Depp ($400M), Michael Douglas ($300M) and Leonardo DiCaprio ($275M). The moguls are even wealthier, like George Lucas ($5B), Steven Spielberg ($3.5B) and James Cameron ($700M).

More Wealth Is Translating Into More Giving

Historically, leaders in entertainment have been reluctant to give away significant amounts of money because they were always worried about their future earnings. Working in a volatile industry, and facing fickle public tastes, stars knew they could easily fade down the line. Hollywood abounds with tales of those who got financially overextended and fell hard.

All that is still true, but once you have a few hundred million dollars—as more stars do—the possibility of doom recedes and it’s easier to spare some extra cash for the cause of your choice. Also, in the age of franchise movies, long-running hit TV shows, and concert tours by well-branded musicians, the earnings of some celebrities have become more predictable.

All of which explains why a new era of entertainment industry philanthropy is now emerging. More leaders from this sector have set up foundations and are engaged in steady grantmaking. For example, we’ve written often about Leonardo DiCarpio’s rising giving for environmental causes through his foundation, and about Will and Jada Smith’s giving. Then there is Michael Eisner, the former Disney chief, who now has presides over a professional foundation. George Lucas has lately been ramping up his giving, mainly for education. I could name plenty of other examples.

Yup, Lots of Liberal Money Here

Entertainment industry funders continue to live up to their liberal reputation. In our research, we’ve found that stalwart progessive funders from this sector—like Norman Lear and Barbra Streisand—are still going strong with their giving, even as a newer generation of funders emerge with similar priorities. Environmental causes have been particularly hot in recent years, but money flows to lots of other issue areas, too, like reproductive rights, civil liberties, and LGBT rights.

There are reasons for the liberalism in entertainment circles. For all its commercialism, this remains a creative sector populated by many creative people who are drawn to open expression and alternative thinking. Many sympathize more with the underdogs than the “suits.” If your liberal group can crack the fundraising code, you may find a lot of allies here.

It’s Still Early in the Game

Even as more foundations are established in Hollywood, the scale of giving and level of professionalization remains modest. Many entertainment philanthropists give away only a few million dollars a year, and rely on consultants or just one or two staff to direct their giving.

This pattern is not unusual, and we see it in other industries where big fortunes have piled up. Philanthropists usually start out small, often because they’re still busy with their careers and don’t have the time to focus a lot of attention on giving. As people get older, though, and slow down with work, philanthropy moves toward center stage—and the dollar amounts grow. Many of today’s entertainment mega-earners may be years, or even decades, away from becoming truly significant philanthropists. But others, now past their prime, are beginning to give more, and we expect that trend to accelerate. Kirk Douglas is a great example, as we’ve reported.

Access Is Improving, But Remains Tough

There’s nothing more frustrating for a fundraiser than a rich person who’s known to give generously but doesn’t have an established foundation or any clear way to get in touch. Celebrities are especially well-defended from outside entreaties, and even if some star is known to care deeply about your cause, it doesn’t mean you’ll have a chance of getting anywhere near them. It can be difficult to figure out who is giving how much and to what, with lots of philanthropic dollars from the entertainment industry moving outside of foundation vehicles, through direct contributions.

The good news, though, is that as more entertainment industry leaders establish foundations, there are more potential points of contact and a stronger grantmaking paper trail. Some of the newer foundations even have transparent processes for submitting letters of inquiry, along with deadlines. More commonly, though, these foundations don’t have websites, and fundraisers need to get creative, figuring out who’s staffing a small giving operation and trying to connect with that person. Social media can be super-helpful in this regard. Look at the paid staff listed in a foundation’s 990 and then track them down on LinkedIn or other social media.

Cultivation Is Key

While cultivation is a key to accessing funders everywhere, it’s particularly important in this industry, with Hollywood often likened to a club. The insiders know each other well, and those involved in social causes and giving tend be especially networked. Getting yourself connected to someone who can make introductions and champion what you’re doing is essential. Historically, there have been figures in the industry who help outside fundraisers find their way around and meet the right people.

The question for many fundraisers is whether it’s really worth their time, when they could be going after lower hanging fruit elsewhere. That’s a hard question to answer. Some organizations that really put in the time to cultivate industry donors—like NRDC and Human Rights Campaign—have ended up not only raising serious money, but snagging celebrity backers, which can be just as useful.

Philanthropic Dollars Are Just One Funding Stream

A last point worth making is that entertainment leaders often prefer to deploy their money in more politicized ways. This sector makes heavy campaign donations, of course, but also gives plenty of 501(c)(4) money. As more nonprofit groups set up c4 arms, the entertainment industry is a good place to keep in mind as a source of donations to those more hard-hitting operations.