When beloved celebrities pass away, it’s not surprising to learn that they engaged in charity beyond that they publicly owned to during their lives and careers. Celebs in general are basically expected to be involved in some sort of charity, to make a cause theirs, I suppose by way of repaying us for the fame we give them. But many also engage in shadow charity, donating resources secretly and asking that they be kept out of the limelight, for a variety of reasons.
One of those reasons is probably the desire to avoid being deluged in requests for help and ‘why this but not that’ responses from the public. But some of it also, I think, comes from a very genuine place of wanting to do good for good’s sake, not for the sake of being acknowledged for it. It’s totally possible to be charitable and to be known as a philanthropist and to be doing it because you genuinely care about the cause, and I wouldn’t claim otherwise. But also, there’s something very meaningful about people who don’t feel the need to trumpet the fact that they have donated money or resources.
Celebrities have bought real estate, paid off debt, helped people get to college, and facilitated huge changes in people’s lives as well as organisations because they hear about things that trouble them and they want to do something. The secret approach to charity means that you don’t get the feel-good high from the public idolising you, but that doesn’t make your work less important. In fact, some people actively prefer to donate secretly, to take ego and politics out of it to do what they think is right. Donating a million dollars to a low-income community to help them with a project can suddenly have all kinds of strings attached if it’s Famous Celebrity’s One Million Dollars, you know?
So I understand why people do it. And I understand why people who know the truth come forward after people die to talk about their generosity. And I understand why people find it thoughtful, or touching, or impressive, or any number of other complex things. It often makes people feel more deeply connected with celebrities they loved, more touched by their lives and work.
But here’s another thing: Celebrities aren’t the only ones who can do this.
Okay, well, maybe you don’t have a million dollars to casually drop somewhere. But you, too, can engage in acts of random, anonymous, kind charity at whatever level happens to work for you. Remember back in the days before toll passes, when people would randomly pay tolls for the cars behind them? How many times have you bought coffee for someone behind you in line, just because you feel like it? How many times have you seen someone who is obviously struggling and quietly paid their grocery bill or picked up the tab somewhere else? How many times have you heard someone stressing out over a vet bill and just paid it, or left money on tick at the vet’s for clients in need who can’t afford care but love their animals very much? How many times have you applied for a grant, fellowship, or award on someone’s behalf, knowing they deserve it, but would never do it? How many times have you done a small, quiet thing?
If you haven’t, why not? Does it feel performative and awkward and weird to you, especially in a situation where your anonymity kind of gets busted? Think about how to change that — maybe, for example, you can pick up a gift card for someone who’s having a tough time and leave it at the counter, if you live in a small town and know they will be back in to get more groceries, or hardware, or whatever. Maybe you can pop out into the parking lot and call the clerk or the person behind the counter to explain what you want to do. Maybe you can turn it into an act of someone else’s kindness: ‘Oh, someone bought coffee for me once when I forgot my wallet, I’m just paying it forward.’
We sometimes view celebrities as larger than life, as though their accomplishments aren’t things we could ever hope to really replicate. I probably won’t become a multiplatinum singer, but like Prince, I can try to quietly make the world a better place for people with fewer resources than me. I won’t be a famous movie star, or an internationally bestselling author, or an amazingly talented dancer, but I have the same thing all of those people do: The ability to see the world around me, and to identify those in need. And the ability to help, though on a much smaller scale.
We are in hard times, and they are going to get harder. Many people are going to suffer in the coming years. No one should have to depend on charity for survival, but people do, and in the coming political climate, that is a problem that is going to get worse. I can talk about loathing the charity model and all it stands for, but I’m not going to let people starve while I do it. Charity, and kindness, aren’t a matter of famous and/or wealthy people giving lavish bequests. They are about giving what you can, according to your abilities, to those who have less than you do.
Image: Money Maker, Alpes Çugun, Flickr