The King of Hollywood Philanthropy

By connecting celebrities like Ashton and Demi and Brad and Angelina with philanthropic crusades, Trevor Neilson has redefined the phrase cause célèbre.

(, November 30, 2010.)

HE IS STANDING ON STAGE in a basement conference room at a midtown-Manhattan hotel, in front of a wall of flashing cameras, flanked by his wife, Demi Moore, and assorted do-gooders. Kutcher and Moore are here, at the Clinton Global Initiative—an annual conference hosted by the former president that addresses issues like HIV and debt relief—to talk up their own philanthropic efforts. The year-old Demi & Ashton (DNA) Foundation is launching its first project, Real Men Don’t Buy Girls, an advocacy campaign to fight child-sex-slave trafficking in the United States.

Kutcher is getting emotional. He’s talking about pimps raping 13-year-old girls. “It’s an uncomfortable issue,” he says, his voice laced with anger and frustration. “Trust me. When we’re sitting down with our girls at the dinner table talking about human trafficking, it’s awkward. But our children need to know about it.”

When he’s finished, Moore puts a comforting hand on his back and mouths, “Good job.” But it’s another hand that guides Kutcher to his next appearance—that of Trevor Neilson, the man directing this show. A Hollywood philanthropy consultant, he pairs celebrities with causes and helps them transform from the world’s biggest stars into its most responsible citizens, one photo op at a time.

Neilson, a 38-year-old with dark good looks and exceptional credentials—Clinton White House intern, director of public affairs and director of special projects at the Gates Foundation, Council of Foreign Relations member—is the co-founder and president of Global Philanthropy Group (GPG). When celebrities want to rebuild Haiti, fight breast cancer, or maybe just burnish a tarnished public image by doing something, he is the man they call. He has worked with Angelina and Brad, Bono, both Bills (Clinton and Gates), Rihanna, Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey, Shakira, and Avril Lavigne, just to name a few. For fees upward of $170,000 a year, he matches an A-list client to a cause, sets up a strategy and a foundation, secures meetings on Capitol Hill, brings other wealthy backers on board, and summons the media to cover every saving-the-world moment along the way. In 2006, Neilson was the PR point man in the fierce bidding war for the first exclusive photos of Angelina Jolie’s adopted Cambodian son, Maddox. As part of the deal he brokered, People magazine was obligated to report on the needs of the Cambodian people in exchange for the pictures.

“Artists are brands,” says Neilson, standing in the hotel lobby at the Clinton Global Initiative, hobnobbing with every third person who walks past. “I see a need and a business opportunity to build those brands.” Neilson is impressively smart, earnest in the manner of a D.C. policy wonk, and, as is clear in the bustling who’s-who environment of the conference, tremendously well-connected. “You should know this guy,” he says, interrupting himself to grab the attention of the head of Brad Pitt’s home-rebuilding charity in New Orleans. The man says he needs $5 million. “Walk upstairs, it’s early in the day,” Neilson says with a laugh. The chief of Richard Branson’s charitable foundation passes by. “You left Necker Island for this?” Neilson asks her, referring to the tycoon’s private Caribbean getaway. YouTube’s Chad Hurley walks over and Neilson invites him to the Shakira concert that night at Madison Square Garden. Hurley can’t; his wife made other plans. “Jim Carrey will be with us,” says Neilson. “It will be a blast, man.”

“This guy is plugged in on so many levels—politics, charity, the media,” says Andrew F. Cooper, a distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Ontario and the author of Celebrity Diplomacy. “He’s working in a remarkable new niche market.”

But Neilson sees himself as both a trailblazer and a chip off the old block. His father was an Olympia, Washington, family-court judge, and his mother ran an international child-welfare and adoption service; both practiced the liberal values they preached. They discovered children in need and adopted them—four to be exact, Neilson’s two African-American brothers and his two Korean sisters. In other words, doing good was part of his upbringing.

NEILSON AND HIS WIFE, Maggie, run GPG out of small offices in Santa Monica, California, two blocks from the beach. The pair oversee 15 staffers—mostly energetic twentysomethings fresh from M.B.A. and public-policy programs—and work with roughly 20 clients at a time. The atmosphere is more collegiate think tank than Hollywood glam.

Most clients who come to Neilson—half celebrities, half less conspicuous wealthy donors—have a clear idea of what issue they want to tackle. About a quarter arrive without a cause, just with the urge to do something. The staff’s work begins with questions that help them find options that play best to a client’s image and audience. What are your core values? What injustices make you angriest? How much time do you have to work on this? In other words: What matters to you? Then Neilson and his team select a suitable issue and offer advice on how best to address it.

“Certain brands are incompatible,” Neilson explains. He is back in Santa Monica, dressed in dark jeans and a crisp burgundy gingham shirt. When the fashion designer Tory Burch wanted to get into childhood-hunger issues, Neilson helped her realize that her entrepreneurial skills were better-suited to microfinance. Soundgarden’s frontman, Chris Cornell, wants to get involved in children’s issues. “You can slice and dice that 40 ways,” Neilson says. “Children with disabilities, disease, physical or mental handicaps. But it’s got to be in a way his fans can relate to. He’s a hard-rock guy. He’s not gonna be all like, ‘Please come save the children.’ “

When Neilson first met Kutcher and Moore a year ago, they knew they wanted to fight sex trafficking. Kutcher had a philanthropic track record—using Twitter to rally a million followers and raise money for malaria nets in Africa—and he and Moore had seen a 60 Minutes segment on child sex workers in Cambodia. But they were unfocused in their approach. “They hadn’t created a foundation, didn’t have a business plan, didn’t have a strategy,” says Neilson. The GPG team, with Kutcher and Moore on board, agreed that, given Kutcher’s domestic popularity, they should go after the demand side in the U.S. Neilson put four people on the account, and the group developed a 140-point plan of attack (“I don’t want to give away too much of the secret sauce,” Neilson says with a wide smile). He introduced the couple to State Department experts. He brought them to the California-Mexico border, where they met with a 13-year-old trafficked rape victim. He brokered a deal with the Department of Homeland Security that cast them in training videos teaching people how to spot trafficked sex slaves. (“Cops especially respect Demi because of her law-enforcement roles,” says Neilson, referring to A Few Good Men and G.I. Jane.) The next step was putting a White House stamp of approval on the foundation. In May, Neilson set up a press conference for Moore on Capitol Hill. She brought along three female sex slaves to tell their stories in a meeting with a senior White House adviser. The media paid attention. Days later the couple was appearing in Parade and on CNN.

There is, in all of this, an undeniable element of image scrubbing. It used to be that celebrities donated their money, and some face time, to established charities like the United Way. Then came Band Aid and USA for Africa-style benefits, in which stars pooled their influence for a cause. But in its annual look at the biggest celebrity givers this year, Forbes noted that around a quarter of the stars on the list now have their own foundations, allowing for maximum image control and exposure. “It’s become somewhat of a status symbol to have your own charity these days,” says Marc Pollick, founder of the Giving Back Fund, which helps pro athletes like Yao Ming and Ben Roethlisberger develop their own philanthropic brands.

A personal charity is also helpful, as in the case of Kutcher and Moore, in deflecting negative press. The foundation’s first media blitz appeared a month ahead of the critically panned Killers, starring Kutcher (at the premiere, he held up a Real Men Don’t Buy Girls poster, almost like a shield). And although it wasn’t planned this way, the Real Men campaign gave the press something to ponder other than Kutcher’s alleged infidelity, reported earlier that week in Star magazine (Kutcher declined to be interviewed for this story).

NEISON IS SITTING POOLSIDE at the Viceroy hotel in Santa Monica. It’s a sunny Thursday after work, and he is having a beer as he tends to his BlackBerry.

“People recognize that if a celebrity is serious about their philanthropy, their image will improve,” he says. “I welcome that. People say, ‘All this philanthropy Bono does just results in him being in the headlines.’ I just say, ‘You’re goddamn right. And I’m glad.’ The more rewarded an artist is for doing philanthropy, the more other people are going to want to do it.”

It’s an interesting, and proudly self-serving, argument. One that gets him going. “Let’s say you’re a rich guy, you’ve been a brutal corporate titan,” he says. “You decide your issue is hunger. The kid who is eating breakfast that morning because of the dollar you donated doesn’t give a fuck what you did in your business career. People who like to be cynical about other people’s motivations for philanthropy should spend some time with that kid, the one who doesn’t have any breakfast.” In fact, if Neilson has his way, he will soon have legions of famous names lined up to help that kid. “Five years from now every significant figure in sports and entertainment is going to be expected to do something to make the world a better place,” he says. “This is going to move from being a trend to an expectation. I am well positioned to help the most serious people in the entertainment community design smart, effective strategies that create real change.”

He looks at his BlackBerry and laughs. “Look at this,” he says. Kanye West is on the line. Well, his people are, and they want to set up a meeting about starting a foundation. “See, I respect this guy,” Neilson says. “I’m a huge Kanye fan. But we’re actually having a capacity problem. We’re growing fast, so we really have to pick and choose our clients.” What Neilson is looking for, he says, is a sincere connection. He wants to separate the wheat from the chaff and pinpoint which stars are going to stay committed five, ten, fifteen years down the road, and which ones will bask in a brief halo effect and then move on. “I want to sit down with someone like Kanye, look him in the eye, and say, ‘Are you serious about philanthropy? Talk to me about your life. What matters to you?’ “