RIHANNA in a village in malAWI.
RIHANNA in a village in malAWI.

Celebrity philanthropy has an unfair reputation as being all about posturing, but there’s a long history of entertainers who are quite dedicated to the causes they support, often through established grantmaking foundations. The late Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne, for example, launched the Douglas Foundation all the way back in 1964, and it continues steady giving today.

Compared to Douglas’ days as Spartacus, however, the latest generation of entertainers and athletes are amassing more money than ever—and from earlier ages, too. Consider powerhouses like Taylor Swift and Adele, who are only in their early 30s, and have net worths in the nine-figure range. And while many of these stars are still very much preoccupied with their careers, some will likely emerge as major philanthropists down the line.

Indeed, some are already on their way.

Consider Barbados-born singer Rihanna, whose net worth is $600 million according to Forbes, making her the world’s richest female musician. Born Robyn Rihanna Fenty, at just 32, she has no fewer than a million hits (well, it seems that way, at least), which have become the soundtrack for my generation. A top-flight musician, she also created Fenty Beauty, and became the first woman of color to sign a deal with LVMH, the French luxury goods giant. The star’s makeup brand reported $100 million in sales in its first few weeks alone, illustrating just how uniquely dedicated her following is.

Rihanna is also starting to make her name as a philanthropist, standing up the Clara Lionel Foundation (CLF) in 2012, which supports education and emergency response programs around the world. CLF sports a small staff and a board that includes Rihanna’s mother Monica and Kawanna Brown, COO of Magic Johnson Enterprises. The foundation was created in honor of her grandparents, Clara and Lionel Braithwaite, and its inaugural investment of $1.75 million created the Clara Braithwaite Center for Oncology and Nuclear Medicine at Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) in Barbados. Her home country clearly still looms large in her life and in her philanthropy.

From Reactive to Proactive in the Caribbean

In the tropics, the annual march of hurricanes across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean is as inevitable as graduation walk in late Spring. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria killed thousands of people during the historic 2017 hurricane season, causing some $250 billion in damages. Through the years, CLF has stepped in to provide relief, including partnering with World Central Kitchen and Direct Relief after Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas as a Category 5 in late summer 2019.

CLF board member Jessie Schutt-Aine drives some of the foundation’s work in the Caribbean, and is also the Pan American Health Organization’s (PAHO) subregional program coordinator for the Caribbean. Having spent most of her career in global health, she focuses on programming on the ground in Barbados and the broader Caribbean.

To execute its mission, the foundation coordinates with agencies like the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), Barbados Family Planning Association (BFPA) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation. CLF is concerned with ensuring its work is sustainable, and Schutt-Aine is confident that their success in this region will depend on these critical partnerships.

“I’m particularly impressed by the foundation’s innovation. We’re able to address real needs on the ground, and I’m glad how quickly we’re able to do upstream work to get funds out of the door so that they’re meaningful and relevant. We want to be nimble and fast, but also make sure that the homework is done and that we’re working with the right partners,” she adds.

Speaking to the foundation’s adaptability, in recent years, CLF started to rethink its strategy in the disaster response space. This evolution follows a similar trajectory of young foundations, which often start out with broader aims, and then refine and focus their interests over time. These “broad buckets,” as CLF Executive Director Justine Lucas calls them, eventually narrowed into grantmaking that today is strongly focused on emergency response and preparedness.

In 2018, CLF announced a climate resilience initiative and began testing a different approach in its Caribbean work, focused on proactively strengthening infrastructure and social systems to prepare for future storms, rather than working in a reactive way. This $25 million initiative will be a major focus in the next five years.

In the effort’s first pilot project, the foundation worked with International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region and Engineers Without Borders-USA to make reproductive health clinics in the Caribbean more resilient to disasters. Since then, the resilience initiative has worked with schools in Dominica, reproductive health clinic projects in Belize and the Dominican Republic, and supported efforts in Barbados.

This forward-thinking approach to disaster relief, with an eye toward resilience, could have significant impact in developing countries. It’s challenging to shift “the entire emergency response mechanism into believing it’s okay to support vulnerable communities before a disaster occurs,” Lucas once said. But this is precisely what CLF has set out to do with its resilience fund, and it’s a strategy that holds implications for other areas of Rihanna’s giving.

“Intersectionality is a big part of what we think about and do… and there’s a lot of research that shows that after a natural disaster, funding for anything related to women and girls and women’s health is really small,” Lucas says. When the CLF team visited a reproductive health clinic in Puerto Rico on the heels of Irma and Maria, for instance, they were surprised to find that it was only just reopening after a year and a half. Women and girls face unique challenges during and after disaster, including delayed reporting of sexual violence.

“We wanted to lead with projects at the intersection of women’s rights, women’s reproductive health and climate and resiliency, and it felt like a strong statement in climate resilience to make sure women are prioritized,” Lucas adds.

Timely Assistance Stateside

It’s hard to imagine anything that Rihanna does would not draw attention (“What’s My Name?” has nearly 826 million views on YouTube), but that’s mostly been the case for CLF, which has largely flown under the radar. With a slew of recent grantmaking during the pandemic and renewed calls for racial justice, though, CLF is starting to move into the spotlight.

This year’s grantmaking highlights include more than $15 million to organizations focused on addressing mental health issues, in partnership with Jack Dorsey’s Start Small initiative, and a similar $11 million collaboration in support of efforts to advance racial equity with a focus on criminal justice and policing reform. Rihanna also donated an undisclosed supply of PPE to the state of New York, and working again with Dorsey, provided $4.2 million to victims of domestic violence impacted by the COVID-19 lockdowns.

At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the larger philanthropic world often focused on the most obvious needs such as PPE and testing, but has since expanded to address other gaps that the ongoing pandemic has worsened or exposed. Lucas breaks down CLF’s early response in March, describing an organization primed to take action: “We know how to move quickly, vet organizations, and really jump in. So we saw this challenge, and how the stimulus package was leaving communities behind.”

Throughout our conversation, Lucas emphasized Rihanna’s powerful position and the ability for her to bring to bear resources beyond philanthropic dollars. In some instances, this might mean connecting with a billionaire like Jack Dorsey for a big gift. But also consider how this access might play out earlier in the process, including when a foundation is doing the work of figuring out how best to deploy funds.

“Because we had access to the level of mayors and governors, we were able to coordinate with cities and make sure we weren’t duplicating efforts. We are able to work hyperlocal with organizations and assess their needs to face the challenge ahead,” Lucas says.

CLF identified communities left out of funding, focusing on issues like domestic violence, undocumented workers and homelessness. The foundation funded Chicago Youth Service Corps with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, empowering at-risk Chicago kids to do pandemic-related work over the summer. For example, 650 young people from across the city served as social distancing ambassadors, and completed an online course on pandemics and pandemic response through Harvard and MIT’s Operation Outbreak.

“We funded the big guys, but we also wanted to look elsewhere, too,” Lucas says.

Not too far away, CLF connected with Community Foundation of Greater Flint as part of a larger $3.2 million CLF-Start Small team-up to support response efforts in Michigan and other states. Because Community Foundation of Greater Flint serves as an umbrella over smaller organizations, Lucas says CLF was able to get even more local in its work here, while ensuring proper vetting.

Historically, CLF has not worked in the mental health space, but recognized a need during the pandemic, supporting organizations like Child Mind Institute, Trevor Project, West Side United, and The Network’s Crisis Response Fund. A grant to the JED Foundation focused on providing mental health aid to youth and young adults, while a grant to West Side United zoomed in on the high rates of COVID-19 related illness and death in Chicago’s Black and Latino communities. In Chicago, more than 70% of the city’s first coronavirus deaths were among African Americans, and in Illinois at large, Hispanics account for 28% of confirmed cases, the largest share by racial demographic.

A Powerful Fundraising Strategy

CLF launched in 2012, but Rihanna sang her first notes in philanthropy back in 2006 when she launched the Believe Foundation at just 18 years old, focusing on helping terminally ill children. She performed free “A Girl’s Night Out” charity concerts, pulling in support from sponsors and advertisers, and providing medical and school supplies, as well as toys.

In 2008, she sang live with female artists during the “Stand Up to Cancer” television special, helping raise over $100 million. And in 2012, she performed at the storied House of Blues in Los Angeles to benefit the Children’s Orthopedic Center and the Mark Taper-Johnny Mercer Artists Program at Children’s Hospital L.A.

These early experiences set the table for the fundraising model the Clara Lionel Foundation uses today to support a large part of its work. The connections she’s able to leverage illustrate Rihanna’s advantage as a celebrity giver, forming an approach not unlike what we see in Leonardo DiCaprio’s charity fundraising. Beginning in 2014, CLF has hosted an annual Diamond Ball, a star-studded event that, in 2019, drew the likes of Pharrell, DJ Khaled, Cardi B, Carmelo Anthony and Seth Meyers, who hosted the proceedings.

CLF continues to rake in funds through the event, pulling in a combined $11 million in the past two years. Rihanna also leverages her brands to support the foundation, including a partnership between FENTY Beauty and CLF. And on the large donor side, CLF lists a mix of brands, individuals and private foundations, including Apple Inc., BET, Christopher and Loretta Stadler, WME, Amazon, the Rubin Family Foundation, Universal Music Group and Facebook.

Global Education, and Rihanna as Activist

CLF also focuses on global education in its work, a priority for both Rihanna and Lucas. Before coming to the foundation, Lucas was the global director of programs for Global Citizen, where she oversaw the Global Citizen Festival, events, programs and strategic partnerships. Within this world, she liaised with managers and agents, including Rihanna’s manager. From there, Rihanna and Lucas connected over a shared passion for international development work, including in the education space.

In 2016, Rihanna became global ambassador for the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), encouraging world leaders and policymakers to boost their support for global education and education during emergencies through GPE.

“This is not just her name on a letter, or writing an op ed. She’s using her voice to put pressure on heads of state,” Lucas says. Rihanna went to France and met with President Emmanuel Macron, and to Senegal for the Replenishment Conference. “She tweeted at many world leaders, with targeted dollar amounts, and then her followers backed her up.… We’ve proven that this advocacy model works.”

This last point reflects a unique kind of power that today’s celebrity philanthropists wield. Rihanna’s Twitter account is nearly 100 million followers strong, and her Instagram is at nearly 90 million. In an era when star musicians and athletes alike are leading social movements,—most recently including from the NBA, WNBA and other leagues—Rihanna’s position shouldn’t be seen only in traditional philanthropic terms, confined to foundation work and individual donations.

Rihanna’s activism is backed up by CLF’s projects, working in places like Malawi, which Rihanna herself has visited, teaching math and other subjects. In the East African country, because of families facing financial hardship, many boys go to school while many girls do not. Through its partnership with Camfed, CLF has been helping to change that ratio in the area. Separately, CLF launched its Global Scholarship Program, which supports exceptional students from other countries pursuing higher education in the United States. There are currently 17 scholars actively enrolled in the program.

Looking ahead to the foundation’s future, Lucas emphasizes three things: impact, leverage and scale. She knows CLF is just one nonprofit, but rather than perpetual funding, Rihanna and the team want to create sustainable systems change. Down the line, she sees the organization expanding a little, but remaining very lean. “Scaling teams, I feel, is the way of the past. You don’t need to spend a lot of time managing people to have the greatest impact anymore,” Lucas says.

Regarding what Rihanna herself might say about her philanthropy, Lucas was careful not to speak for her, but did say, “Obviously, she builds empires in business and music, and she wanted philanthropy to be as big and as resounding a success as all of those other things.”

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