Where 'Idol's' Charitable Arm Reaches

Edward Wyatt | 07 Apr 2024
New York Times

LOS ANGELES — Just about anyone who has tuned in "American Idol" this season has seen video clips of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell touring slums in Africa or working with victims of poverty in the United States as part of the program's "Idol Gives Back" charity. Ryan Seacrest, the show's host, has repeatedly extolled the charity for the $76 million it raised last year.

But even as "American Idol" and Fox Broadcasting prepare for their second annual star-studded "Idol Gives Back" appeal on Wednesday, officials at the charity have declined to release a formal accounting of last year's effort. A spokesman for the Charity Projects Entertainment Fund, the organization that oversaw the fund-raising and distribution, said its financial statements were being audited and would be released by the federal financial reporting deadline for charities in May.

That does little, however, to help individuals and corporations that, while considering further contributions, might wonder what happened to the money they gave last year. But interviews with officials involved in the charities that received money as well as people associated with the fund-raising effort show that most of what was raised last year has been given or pledged to organizations fighting poverty in the United States and Africa. Some $5 million of last year's proceeds and interest remains undistributed.

About $55 million was contributed by individuals who called in during last year's "Idol Gives Back" program, and corporations contributed roughly $14 million more, according to interviews with officials involved in the effort. An additional $7 million came from corporations and foundations that made direct or matching grants to the charities designated to receive money.

Roughly $68 million of the $76 million raised last year has been pledged to nine charities that seek to reduce poverty in the United States and in Africa. Because that money was designated to be given to the charities over two years, a little more than half of it has been distributed so far, officials at the charities said.

About $5 million of the total was used for administrative costs, including paying for the telephone lines to accept the contributions and the legal and other costs associated with making sure that the recipients had good plans for the money. At 7 percent of the direct contributions to "Idol Gives Back," that is a generally lower amount than used by most charities for overhead.

Overall officials at the nine charities that received the money said they were pleased with the efforts of the "Idol Gives Back" charity, particularly with officials' rigor in vetting potential uses of the money.

"Sometimes celebrity or entertainment-industry-based charities might not be the most sophisticated organizations in distributing the money they raise," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, the president and a co-founder, with the musician Paul Simon, of the Children's Health Fund. "But the 'American Idol' group got up to speed more rapidly than I've ever seen before. And they did a tremendous amount of investigation and due diligence among the organizations that could be potential recipients."

Last year's money was raised and distributed through the Charity Projects Entertainment Fund, which was co-founded by Richard Curtis, a British screenwriter and film director who also was a founder of the Comic Relief charity events and who helped organize the Live Aid concerts. Mr. Curtis teamed with Simon Fuller, the executive producer who brought "American Idol" to the United States from Britain, to originate the charity effort in the United States.

Because Comic Relief had considerable experience in raising and distributing money for charity, the "American Idol" producers relied on its infrastructure, through the Charity Projects Entertainment Fund, which was overseen by a group of American and British trustees.

This year, however, the Charity Projects Entertainment Fund is not involved in the project. Instead it will be more directly overseen by the producers of "American Idol" under a new charity, which has taken the name of the fund-raiser, Idol Gives Back.

Cecile Frot-Coutaz, an executive producer of "American Idol" and chief executive of FremantleMedia North America, the production company that oversees the program's production, said the change was intended to focus the efforts of "American Idol" better on its own charitable causes.

Ms. Frot-Coutaz said the older charity would still lend expertise and had been involved in some aspects of this year's campaign, like filming the work of the designated charities in Africa.

Last year's money was roughly evenly distributed between charities working in Africa and those working in the United States, she said, but this year more of the money will go to domestic charities.

In the United States four charities received pledges of $7.5 million each from last year's effort: America's Second Harvest, a hunger-relief organization; Save the Children, which provides educational resources for poor children; the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, an educational and social organization; and the Children's Health Fund. Another $37,500 was distributed to smaller charities in the United States, officials said.

Five organizations received pledges of $6 million each for work in Africa: the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria; the United States Fund for Unicef; Nothing but Nets and Malaria No More, which work on malaria prevention; and Save the Children.

Another $1 million went to the Kibera Initiative, which helps children in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, and $340,000 went to smaller African charities. The $7 million in matching and direct corporate contributions went to four of the nine charities.

Four of the charities that received money last year have been designated for contributions again this year: the Global Fund, Malaria No More, the Children's Health Fund and the domestic programs of Save the Children.

In addition two new organizations join the beneficiaries: the Children's Defense Fund, which helps children in poverty; and Make It Right, a campaign to help New Orleans recover from the effects of Hurricane Katrina.