When we think of charity, especially when it comes to the rich and famous, we first look to how much money they have contributed. It’s easy, it’s measurable, and it makes for great lists. But if you add the amount of their personal time that changes the equation. How do you value the hourly rate of a celebrity? Add in who they are helping – an environmental cause or starving children in Africa – and the calculation becomes even more complicated.
Making the list extremely superficial by only measuring dollars donated will result in the same lists you can find on a dozen different websites. Choosing who actually makes the list by not making money the sole criteria makes asking who actually should be on the list much harder. If we are going to say that a celebrity is charitable then we can’t really be so superficial about it, can we?
So eliminated from the list are celebrities who just write checks and those who focus on a single charity because that usually means they are an advocate rather than a donor. True charity has no ulterior motive. You might find an exception or two in the list, but are guaranteed not to find Oprah or Bono.
Here is the list, in no particular order.
1. Angelina Jolie.
Over the years, Angelina Jolie has slowly distanced herself from Hollywood while gradually increasing her time spent involved in charity work. Despite her personal problems, Jolie has had a decade-plus long involvement with children’s causes and spent considerable time in Africa – a fact that was unfortunately criticized as a way to gain publicity. AIDS is a huge problem in many countries in Africa, and Jolie along with husband Brad Pitt started the Jolie-Pitt Foundation dedicated to helping children in Ethiopia afflicted with the disease. Her charity extends to helping women as well, having served as a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, where she lectured on violence against women. Her message became global as she voluntarily spoke at a U.N. peacekeeping summit to address the sexual abuse of refugee women by international troops.
2. Nicki Minaj.
Pop quiz: What is the birthplace of Nicki Minaj? Where she gets involved with charity is far, far away from her native country of Trinidad and Tobago (she was born in Saint James). Part of her time and money remained hidden from public view until recently. This year, Nicki decided to share a portion of her wealth to help some of her fans pay their college tuition and expenses. Then she extended that charity to creating a charity that will be available to everyone to help pay for their post-secondary education. What was hidden was that she had been helping an entire village in India for some time, giving them the ability to get free education, establishing an academic computer center, and perhaps most importantly, funded a project that allows the village to have clean water.
3. Taylor Swift.
She has a mixed reputation in the entertainment world, but when it comes to charity, Swift has one of the most solid reputations in Hollywood. The list of organizations she is involved with ranges from the international organization UNICEF which helps children from around the world, to being the founder of a campaign directed at protecting children from becoming the victims of online predators, to honoring veterans by being active in the Wounded Warriors Project. She is reported to have donated to 31 individual charities and has an active role in 30 different causes.
4. Mel Gibson.
Gibson is a stellar example of how you can focus on a general cause and spread around your time and money. Though Gibson fell out of favor a few years ago with his bad behavior, his film Hacksaw Ridge did much to get him back on the road as a favorite in Hollywood. Which is a good thing because much of his focus is on helping children in a number of ways. Whether it is financially assisting children who have serious illnesses, working with children who are at-risk, or helping to place children who are in foster care settings, Gibson had made children his priority. He also has commitments to environmental/conservation causes and disaster relief.
5. Justin Timberlake.
Many celebrities make this list for their efforts with national and international organizations. Timberlake actually spends his time working inside and outside his world of entertainment helping some of these organizations with a hands-on effort. Many people have not heard of the MusiCares MAP Fund that Timberlake lists as one of his major causes. It is a fund with the purpose of meeting the needs of the music community who are dealing with addiction and recovery. Despite what the popular culture believes, Timberlake acknowledges the problems of entertainers in the music industry. A portion of his time is committed to working with Habitat for Humanity, in which he has hands-on involvement.
6. John Cena.
If you don’t follow WWE Wrestling, you likely have not heard of John Cena. He did play in the movie The Marine, and is on this list for one very simple reason: he has helped grant more wishes for children in the Kids Wish Network than any celebrity who has worked with Kids Wish. He turned 40 this year. Enough said.
7. Justin Bieber.
Yes, the idol of many teenagers who has a difficult relationship with adults and the media (who also are mostly adults) actually is a spoiled philanthropist – if there is such a thing. He is a consistent donor to the educational organization Pencils of Promise, and supports the Water Now movement. Buy his greatest commitment is to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He makes sure he schedules time to meet with children from Make-a-Wish at every city he tours. There is the heartwarming story of how on Valentine’s Day, 2011, Bieber flew 6 year old fan Avalanna Routh to New York City to spend the day with her. Routh had brain cancer. The day was spent doing 6 year old things – eating cupcakes and playing games. Given his age, he deserves a nod of respect for his charitable habits.
8. Gisele Bundchen.
Being the wife of New England Patriot quarterback Tom Brady poses a bit of a problem in adding her to this list. Gisele had certainly carved out her own reputation as a world class model, and donated $1.5 million to assist Haitians after the devastating 2010 earthquake. She also made a $150,000 contribution to help Brazilians accomplish the goals of their Zero Hunger program. Add to that her involvement with St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and the I Am African HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, and you have a celebrity who puts her body where her money goes. But the dilemma is whether her donations are out of her “special account” she keeps separate from Brady’s or whether it is a joint effort (Brady didn’t make the list.)
9. George Clooney.
Clooney made the headlines after marrying Amal Alamuddin, who was a human rights activist. When first trying to date her, she rebuffed his offers because she thought his Hollywood persona was a rich, relatively emptyheaded creation of Hollywood. Once they dated she discovered his commitment to human rights and philanthropy was genuine. Clooney co-founded Not On Our Watch which assists needy people in Burma and Zimbabwe. He does a select number of endorsements which all the profit is committed to his charities. In 2008, he was named the United Nations Messenger of Peace for his global peacekeeping efforts.
10. Jamie Oliver.
Not a household name unless you are an avid food and cooking show viewer, Jamie Oliver has an estimated net worth of more than $400 million. But he will not be a favorite with other celebrities on this list as he upset PETA once (or more) by killing a live lamb on his TV show. Yet his presence on this list demonstrates how your natural talents can be at the heart of your charity. Most people on this list sing or act, but Oliver can cook. Once he was established, he created the Fifteen charity restaurant, and personally trained disadvantaged young people. Since its beginning in 2004, there are now Fifteen charity restaurants throughout the world. He followed that by appealing to British government officials to improve the quality of food in their public schools, and resulted in the current healthy living programs throughout the country. Perhaps even more amazing is that Oliver is severely dyslexic, and read his first book in 2013 at 38 years old.
11. Elton John.
Elton John is an exception on this list for a number of reasons. He is the most charitable celebrity in terms of raw dollars (or British pounds), a good portion of those contributions focused on HIV/AIDS causes as he relates; “I have lost many friends to the disease.” But charitable dollars can have an entirely different meaning, as he once donated 120 motorcycles to the African nation of Lesotho. They were to be used by doctors and nurses so they could visit patients in remote areas of the country. Perhaps his most famous act of charity was the $40 million raised after the death of England’s Princess Diana for his 1997 Candle in the Wind song.
12. Leonardo DiCaprio.
DiCaprio recently donated $1 million to the United Way Harvey Recovery Fund after Harvey decimated a large part of southern Texas. In fact, he seems to focus his charity on people who are victims of circumstances that are beyond their control due to Mother Nature. For example, he has made significant contributions to the victims of natural disasters in other countries, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and Hurricane Sandy that struck the Middle Atlantic states in 2012. Much of his focus in on environmental issues such as global warming and animal rights.
13. Orlando Bloom.
Orlando Bloom is one of the prime examples of why celebrities who are charitable only with their money should not be on this list. Aside from making $11 million for every Pirates of the Caribbean movie, he hasn’t had been getting any $1 million paychecks. While he supports more than 30 individual causes, he uses his celebrity to benefit others. The British actor is a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador and was the first celebrity to go to Liberia after the Ebola outbreak that became a global concern. He received the BAFTA Britannia Humanitarian Award in 2015 and says that as much as possible he tries not to exclude himself from the world around him. That may be one of the defining characteristics of everyone on this list – they choose to get involved with the problems of the world directly or indirectly. Speaking of involved, keep in mind he supports his son from his marriage to Miranda Kerr that ended in 2013.
14. Mark Zuckerberg.
Is Mark Zuckerberg a celebrity even though his connections to the silver screen or are tenuous? (Think The Social Network.) Magazines such as Variety, Us, and In Style believe that is the case, and it is hard to exclude someone who has said he will donate 99% the value of his Facebook shares to charity throughout his lifetime. The 2016 estimate of those shares exceeds $50 billion. Yet Zuckerberg seems to be a man without a cause, which may be a good thing. He donated $100 million to the Newark, N.J. school system in 2010, $500 million of stock to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and has exceeded his commitment to “The Giving Pledge” an agreement to donate a minimum of 50% of his total wealth (along with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett who really don’t warrant celebrity status) to charity over the course of his lifetime. This lack of agenda, choosing where the donation are best used based on the situation, seems to be a good way to choose how to distribute your wealth.
15. Jennifer Garner.
The primary focus of Garner is with her involvement with the Save the Children Foundation. As the story is told, Garner seems to be moving away from being involved in Hollywood and committing a good portion of her time to her role as unofficial ambassador to the organization. She has used her celebrity to become a political advocate for the causes and goals of the organization. Though she donates to more than 40 charities and causes, her major charitable contribution is the time she spends with making the lives of children better. If contributions were measured only by the commitment of the celebrity’s time, Garner would very likely occupy the top spot.
16. Sandra Bullock.
Once widely known as “America’s Sweetheart” Sandra Bullock has passed the half century mark and has not rung the celebrity bell as she has done in the past. One of the biggest reasons she is on this list is because she is the de facto Hollywood anonymous donor. (There may be someone else, but they are really anonymous.) With major news stories such as the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Harvey, it is difficult for celebrities to avoid having their donations tracked and reported. (The Japanese tsunami of 2011 was widely reported on, but Sandra managed a relatively quiet $1 million donation to the Red Cross for relief efforts. But Bullock does it in other ways: some local and some personal. She donated 10 pair of custom-designed Rupert Sanderson shoes for auction to benefit the Art and Practice Foundation for foster youth in the 90008 ZIP code. How’s that for local
17. Beyoncé Knowles.
Beyoncé makes this list as one of the major exceptions, in part because of her popular reputation as the number one charitable celebrity, and in part because of the many organizations she donates to. But many of the causes she donates to are social justice causes such as empowering women, which differ from donating money to stop hunger or cure AIDS. There is a more subtle approach she uses when she tells her fans, “Reaching out and touching lives is incredibly empowering. That’s why I want my fans to experience the joy of making a difference by helping someone else.” that seems to tell her fans to go out and do the actual work. Still, she donates a considerable amount of money to charity and collaborates with charitable organizations to raise money for a number of causes.
18. Bill Gates.
OK, if Zuckerberg and Beyoncé make the list, it’s hard to leave off Bill Gates. By sheer numbers, Gates has given the second highest amount to charity in the history of philanthropy – $29.5 billion. Also, the guy gets a pass for not being hands-on with his involvement as he is now 62 years old. But one person who deserves more than a little credit here for Gates’ charitable tendencies is his wife Melinda. Together they have created the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that has given $3 billion to HIV organizations throughout Africa so anyone can get free testing for HIV and $2 billion with the goal of eliminating malaria using vaccines. The main targets of the grants are women and children. The foundation also donates to American libraries and literacy programs to address the country’s high illiteracy rate.
19. J. J. Watt.
Is J. J. Watt a celebrity? Well, it seems the rest of the world thinks so if his JJWatt Foundation is any indication. The Houston Texans star (who is currently out of action with an injury) began asking for donations to a relief fund set up for the victims of Hurricane Harvey with a goal of raising $2 million. According to the foundation website, more than 200,000 people have donated a total of more than $37 million. Watt has always been active in the community, promoting a strong work ethic and telling children to pursue their dreams. Watt may not have the celebrity numbers in terms of fans or his income, but he definitely is a celebrity in the Houston area and in the state of Texas. By the way, the $37 million collected was more than his annual salary.
20. Christy Turlington.
Christy Turlington was put at the end of the list because we wanted to muddy up the waters and give a different perspective on what charitable means. Up to this point we have made money donated an important factor, with personal time committed as a key deciding factor. With Turlington, she has established a foundation, Every Mother Counts, whose focus is on the safety of childbirth for women in the countries of Tanzania, Haiti and Uganda. She has directed close to $3 million to fund the ongoing project. But the money is donated to the project; it does not pass through her hands directly. (She is also charitably involved in more than 30 other projects and causes.) Does this money count in her total of being “personally charitable?” This is true for a number of celebrities, some who are on this list.