Philanthropy by celebrities and athletes often strikes people as being too often performative, all galas and black tie events, rather than on-the-ground work infused with real cash. Through our Glitzy Giving coverage, though, we’ve tracked the philanthropy of a number of Hollywood elite, some of whom have been running robust foundations for years and even decades.
The late Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne, for example, launched their Douglas Foundation all the way back in the early 1960s. Other active and engaged celebrity donors include Norman and Lyn Lear, Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael J. Fox, to name a few. As the nation has erupted in renewed calls for social change, it’s tempting to dismiss a donation from a big name as merely fishing for good publicity. But again, there’s often more than meets the eye.
Take, for example, writer-director-producer J.J. Abrams and public relations executive Katie McGrath. The couple landed a lot of coverage when they recently announced a $10 million, five-year pledge, through their foundation and Abrams’ production company Bad Robot, to “organizations and efforts committed to anti-racist agendas that close the gaps, lift the poor and build a just America for all.”
But well before this timely gift, in the early 2010s, they launched their low-profile Katie McGrath & J.J. Abrams Family Foundation, which gave away around $5.1 million in the most recent tax year for which records are available. Top grantmaking interests include education, the arts, and equity and policy. On the education front, they seem interested both in supporting underserved youth in school and through afterschool programming. And on the policy front, they’ve backed progressive organizations like People For the American Way, an advocacy group co-founded by Norman Lear, another prominent Hollywood screenwriter who has been one of the leading progressive philanthropists from the entertainment industry.
While Abrams and McGrath do not yet have an entire policy center to their name, like USC’s Norman Lear Center, they’ve been outspoken about the importance of equity and social justice for a while, now. And with an estimated $300 million net worth, Abrams, who is only in his early 50s, is likely just getting started.
Their big commitment for racial justice is perhaps a sign of even greater things to come. On Bad Robot’s Instagram, a statement on the commitment reads, “We at Bad Robot are grateful to the many scholars, activists, organizers and leaders fighting on the front lines of change in our systemically unjust country. It is that constellation of thinkers and doers who have the blueprint to a more perfect, fair, equitable and kind union.”
The initiative kicks off with $200,000 directed toward Equal Justice Initiative, Black Futures Lab, Know Your Rights Camp, Black Lives Matter L.A., and Community Coalition. Lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative has garnered quite a bit of support from big donors, including Wall Street couple Jonathan and Jeannie Lavine, as well as billionaires Jon and Pat Stryker. Abrams and McGrath, meanwhile, have been steady backers of Community Coalition, which “works to help transform the social and economic conditions in South L.A.” They gave the nonprofit some $1.8 million between 2015 and 2017 through their foundation, according to available tax records.
This is a good reminder that the unique giving unfolding during the pandemic and amid calls for social change still often fits within the larger philanthropic framework of a given funder. Abrams and McGrath have been steady supporters of Community Coalition, but doubled down during this critical moment.
Another grantee, Black Futures Lab, focuses on engaging black voters year-round and strengthening this voting bloc. And Know Your Rights Camp, started by Colin Kaepernick, aims to “advance liberation and well-being of black and brown communities through education, self-empowerment, mass-mobilization and the creation of new systems that elevate the next generation of change leaders.” Abrams and McGrath seem keen on these kinds of grassroots organizations, and in the past, have supported California Calls, an alliance of grassroots, community-based organizations.
Abrams, 53, is still very much engaged in his Hollywood career, fresh off of his successful stint with the rebooted “Star Wars” franchise, among several other projects. But we can expect this Hollywood couple to have a growing footprint in progressive philanthropy going forward, well beyond their recent high-profile announcement.