Mortenson is the only public figure on this list who achieved fame through philanthropy, rather than using a preexisting fan base to “raise awareness” for his charity of choice. That’s what makes the Three Cups of Tea author’s PR fiasco so disappointing. In the spring of 2011, a 60 Minutes investigation partnered with Jon Krakauer’s sprawling exposé Three Cups of Deceit torpedoed Mortenson’s sterling reputation as a tireless advocate for education in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly for girls. According to Krakauer, Mortenson simply fabricated key elements of his self-touted origin story, including his story of being abducted by the Taliban. What’s worse, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock uncovered significant “financial transgressions” on Mortenson’s part with regard to his Central Asia Institute (CAI), including using CAI money to promote his books and pay his travel expenses, and ordered him to pay over $1 million to his own charity.
Though Bryant’s philanthropic transgressions aren’t nearly as serious as Mortenson’s (not that Kobe hasn’t had his share of very public screw-ups), the basketball star was one of many celebrities who wound up being collateral damage in John Colapinto’s highly critical New Yorker profile of Global Philanthropy Group head Trevor Neilson. According to Colapinto, Bryant signed on with GPG, an organization that pairs celebrities with causes for purposes that come off as more image-related than charitable, and proceeded to lend his public support to My Friend’s Place, a homeless shelter for youth in Los Angeles. At the end of the article, Colapinto revealed that Bryant never made a second visit to the shelter — and more importantly, crucial work on My Friend’s Place’s facilities had never begun. Kobe’s not facing an AG investigation anytime soon, but his motives certainly look less than pure.
UPDATED: ESPN reports that Bryant did return to My Friend’s Place after the New Yorker profile was published; renovations on the center were completed in September 2012.
Another one of Neilson’s GPG clients who came under fire, Kutcher raised a few million eyebrows when he lent his support to a campaign against child prostitution only to publicly support Joe Paterno during the Penn State abuse scandal, not to mention cheat on then-wife Demi Moore with a much younger actress. The man who’d appeared in PSAs arguing that “real men don’t buy girls” suddenly looked both oblivious to the suffering of children and extraordinarily insensitive to his wife. Kutcher hastily claimed he hadn’t known the rationale behind Paterno’s dismissal, but Colapinto rightly points out that it’s very possible “Kutcher had never sufficiently understood his own campaign, which was predicated on exposing the sexual exploitation of children.”
Not that anyone thought of Kim as a particularly generous type to begin with, but pocketing 90% of the cash she gave fans the impression would be donated to charity seems particularly cold. Fox News’ Pop Tarts blog broke the news in early 2012 that Kardashian had been donating the bare minimum portion of her proceeds from various eBay Giving Works auctions to charity, meaning the Dream Foundation (Kim’s cause of choice) had gotten a whopping 10% of the absurd amount of money bidders were willing to pay for items like designer dresses and Christian Louboutin shoes. Technically, Kim was playing by the rules, but a 90% profit sounds more like a high-end yard sale than a charity auction.
Founding a girls’ academy in Malawi appeared to be a well-intentioned move on Madonna’s part, if a little white savior-y. But the pop star chose to run her Raising Malawi organization in conjunction with the notoriously sketchy Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, a partnership rife with mismanagement and picked apart by Newsweek in 2011. Just a few of the damning details surrounding the project: of the $3.8 million in funds allocated for the academy, $3 million of it was spent in Los Angeles at the Kabbalah Centre’s headquarters; a groundbreaking ceremony at the school cost a whopping $106,000; and after the academy’s image started to go south, Madonna and the recently hired Neilson attempted to blame the academy’s director, whose extravagant benefits included a ’96 Toyota and a salary in the high five figures. Bad choice in charities is one thing; throwing a capable employee under the bus is quite another.
UPDATE: Neilson emailed Flavorwire to express his objections to our portrayal of him. After multiple invitations to go on record disputing specific facts in the piece, he responded with the following statement regarding our Madonna entry: “The problem with writers not conducting their own interviews or finding their own sources for stories is that basic facts are ignored and the erroneous statements of others are treated as fact. That’s what has occurred here.” Flavorwire stands by our existing policy of not re-reporting the details of every New Yorker story we cite.
Though his namesake foundation closed down in 2011, Kanye’s namesake charity drew plenty of scrutiny for its notoriously huge expenditures relative to its actual philanthropic work. According to a 2010 report by now-defunct publication The Daily, the Foundation didn’t give a single dime to charity that year in gifts or grants, but still managed to spend over half a million dollars on expenses like salary, travel, and “professional fees.” It’s been speculated that the foundation struggled after the death of West’s mother Donda, its driving force, but West still managed to donate tens of thousands of his own earnings to the organization during its idle years. Kanye’s reputation hasn’t taken too much of a hit from the mini-scandal, but it’s safe to say charity work probably won’t be a huge part of the rapper’s legacy.
Khloe Kardashian/Lamar Odom
Lamar’s got a host of other problems at this point, but the basketball star and his reality-star spouse got some unwelcome attention this spring for their joint charity Cathy’s Kids. Founded with the two fairly distinct goals of raising funds for cancer research and providing mentoring to underprivileged kids, the organization apparently hasn’t done a whole lot of either. Instead, Cathy’s Kids has spent over a million dollars of the two million it’s raised since 2004 funding two traveling youth basketball teams, neither of which was made up of underprivileged kids, and hasn’t made any grants towards cancer research. Odom’s response to the allegations? “It’s my money.”
The Boston Globe‘s far-reaching investigation of athletes and charities uncovered a whole bunch of iffy conduct, but the most prominent player implicated was A-Rod, whose foundation “gave only 1 percent of proceeds to charity during its first year of operation in 2006, then stopped submitting mandatory financial reports to the IRS and was stripped of its tax-exempt status.” That one percent amounted to only $5,090 going towards charitable efforts out of over $400,000 raised. Though the A-Rod Family Foundation’s website was still around at the time of the Globe report’s February publication, it’s since been taken down.
There’s no question that Jean’s Yele Haiti charity has done valuable work in the country. But after the island nation was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2010, the charity’s 2006 tax returns leaked and many of its financial practices came under scrutiny, including payments made to Jean himself or companies he owns. The organization still raised $16 million for earthquake relief efforts, but later investigations concluded that less than a third of the money was spent on actual relief. Unsurprisingly, Yele Haiti closed for good by late 2012.
Sarah’s daughter’s partnership with Candie’s Foundation in 2009 could have set an example for people using their questionably deserved fame for good — in this case, preventing teen pregnancies like her own. But then ThinkProgress discovered in 2011 that Bristol had made a cool $265,000 for her troubles, compared with a measly $35,000 that actually went towards programming like the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and the Mt. Sinai Adolescent Health Center. However, Candie’s Foundation did spend $165,000 on advertisements featuring celebrities like Bristol and Jersey Shore‘s The Situation.