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Campaigning for Attention

By Richard Rushfield


July 26, 2004


The battle for the White House has already claimed one casualty --- Hollywood's attention span. 

Some like activist-filmmaker Rob Reiner whose key issues are children and education try to straddle both worlds.

"They kind of all intertwine in a way and as far as the Kerry campaign, I try to do as much as I can, whenever they call me.

"It does compete for my time, for sure," Reiner says of the political campaign. "I'm stretched in a lot of different directions, there's the campaigning there's non-profit stuff and then there's the government work I do, you know I head the state Commission for Early Childhood and that takes a lot of time and energy. And then my film work, and I have a family too. So I'm pulled in a lot of directions but I try to put one foot in front of the other and try to balance it all."

And for those charities positioned to take advantage of the excitement, election-year activism could prove an unexpected windfall.

"We have seen over time that the money that goes to charity is discretionary funding at the end of one's budget," says Trent Stamp, executive director of Charity Navigator, a group that studies and evaluates charities. "Things like food, taking care of the babies, buying their cars, vacations, those things all come before charitable giving in the family budget. So in an election year, especially in a polarizing election year where there are big differences and a lot of money gets thrown into the campaign, we find that money comes from a lot of pretty good charitable causes."

But despite some cause for concern as the fall campaign season approaches, the good news is that the activism on behalf of presidential candidates has not yet taken a bite out of local charities.

A survey of 10 local philanthropies heavily supported by members of the entertainment industry, groups ranging from the Hollygrove House for abused children to the Writers Guild Foundation to Project Angel Food, reveals that at the midyear mark, donation campaigns and volunteer efforts have yielded results on par with recent years.

John Giles, executive director of Project Angel Food, a popular Hollywood charity that delivers daily meals to sufferers from HIV (news - web sites)/AIDS (news - web sites) and other illnesses, says, "We've not seen any falloff in donations because of the presidential campaigns. Volunteer time is keeping up."

The organization is hosting its annual gala dinner in August, this year honoring Sharon Stone, with tickets ranging from $250-$1,000. "Sales for the dinner are very, very good," Giles says.

The same has been true this year at Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay, reports exec director Mark Gold. "For us there has really been no discernable impact."

This despite the fact that "some of our members and board members are involved politically one way or another. But that's kind of the nature of people who are active in environmental groups, is that they are generally active somewhat politically as well."

Having experienced some fund-raising shortfalls during past campaign years, however, Heal the Bay's schedule steers clear of head-on competition with the fall race.

"In 2000, it was more of a factor. In some years past it has been more difficult to fund-raise when there is a major campaign, but the way our fund-raising schedule is set up it has less of an impact on that. We had our major dinner in June and we did well. It was not any worse than in previous years."

In fact, says Charity Navigator's Stamp, if played deftly, 2004 activism could be harnessed to a charity's gain.

"In 2000, the organizations that succeeded relatively well were those that aligned themselves with a campaign issue. Those charities that are able to align themselves with the election in some way will usually benefit and be OK. Your larger advocacy groups, Planned Parenthood (news - web sites), The ACLU's, the civil rights organizations," he lists as the types of organizations positioned to benefit from the campaign.

This advice has been heeded by the philanthropic activities of Step Up Women's Network, which bills itself as a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to strengthening community resources for women and girls.

With a constituency of the same young Hollywood professional types who have been flooding campaign fund-raisers of late, Step Up's mentoring and community service programs would seem vulnerable to raids by political groups.

However, group founder Kaye Popofsky Kramer says, "Right now the Zeitgeist is 'Let's change this country,' and we tap into that even though we are not directly related. There are definitely new people coming in saying, 'What can I do?' or 'How can I get involved?' because that's what's out there. It's contagious."

Rob Reiner is one of those straddling both worlds, which move on parallel tracks, he says.

But not all stand to benefit, says Charity Navigator's Stamp.

"Your smaller organizations, your women's rape crisis center, your Little League, your library, your animal shelter, we saw them get hit pretty hard in 2000. Volunteers, those are the same people who volunteer to candy stripe at the hospital or clean out dog cages or hand out pamphlets for cleaning up beaches. It's not just a brand new pool of politically active folks who show up at election time."

As the fall campaign heats up, the competition for these volunteers surely will as well.

Copyright © 2003 Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. Variety is a registered trademark of Reed Elsevier Properties Inc. and used under license. All Rights Reserved.

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