I’m always on the lookout for ways that women leaders are doing philanthropy differently — mixing and melding the work into different spaces, finding ways to combine giving with other activities and make philanthropy more accessible to the public. One effort that recently caught my eye was Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation (BTWF) and its collaborating-while-touring work with local organizations.
First, just to clear up a technical detail, BTWF is not actually a foundation, but a nonprofit with the mission of enhancing mental wellness and kindness in the community. This year, rather than using its end-of-year fundraising period to raise money for BTWF, the organization is giving all the money it raised during its partnership with its Channel Kindness Tour to grassroots organizations in communities across the country, many of which are doing groundbreaking work with inclusion as an essential value to building a healthy community.
The Channel Kindness Tour coincided with Lady Gaga’s “Joanne” World Tour, a series of 30 concerts performed by the singer this past year. The tour involved a series of pop up activations, youth-led services events and community gatherings in locations across the United States and Canada. Maya Enista Smith, Executive Director of BTWF, spoke with us at Philanthropy Women, to tell us more about this unusual method of combining touring with activism and philanthropy.
“Our goal is to build a kinder and braver world. We feel young people are uniquely positioned to build that younger and braver world,” said Smith. BTWF is a relatively young organization, celebrating its sixth year this month. Initially founded by Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, the foundation has a diverse funding base including corporate partners like Staples and Starbucks, and foundation support from Microsoft and Find Your Grind, as well as individual donors.
“We visited 30 communities on that tour and we met with 65 organizations. When we started this tour, we didn’t know that the fundraising piece was going to be part of it, but we were just so overwhelmed with the incredible work that these local organizations were doing in service to young people, to spreading kindness and encouraging a culture of mental wellness,” said Smith. “So we decided to leverage the platform we had with the Channel Kindness Tour to not only shine a light on these organizations, but also do more, so we decided to dedicate our year-end fundraising campaign for these organizations.”
Through its Channel Kindness Tour, BTWF visited the organizations and volunteered with them, helping them to garner media attention. The nonprofits were also invited to have informational tables in the concert venues in order to call more attention to their work.
Many of the organizations receiving support emphasize inclusiveness in their missions. Youth Emergency Services in Omaha, Nebraska, for example, provides housing to homeless youth. Artmix, an organization in Indiana, provides art classes to young people with disabilities, particularly focusing on reaching out to low income communities. Downtown Eastside Women’s Center in Vancouver, Canada, serves women and families in poverty with food and other basic services.
Over the course of the tour, BTWF raised over $12,000, and both Lady Gaga and the Foundation matched these funds, so that in total $38,000 was raised to support organizations that engaged with the tour. As a result, 35 organizations will receive grants of $1,000 for their work.
This fundraising effort shifts the model in an interesting way. By connecting with nonprofits in the communities where Lady Gaga was touring, BTWF learned about important local activism and then responded by bringing more resources to them. Imagine if more performers took the time to reach out and get to know local nonprofits as they toured, finding ways to bring more attention and funding to their work. Smith said that BTWF got over 100 new donations with this effort, demonstrating the high level of interest in being connected to funding more work at the grassroots.
Many of the organizations receiving support also emphasize LGBTQ rights and gender equality. Cool Girls in Atlanta, for example, provides after-school programming for at-risk girls in grades 2 through 8, with activities ranging from fitness to STEM. Women of the World in Utah provides career pathways for young women, training women in careers and working to address the gender wage gap.
“We look for organizations that value youth voices,” said Smith. “Every organization we met with, young people are at the center of their work.”
Another way that BTWF is working to collaborate with the nonprofits it met with in communities is by highlighting their work on Channel Kindness. To get the word out about the value of kindness, BTWF has brought together 50 reporters from across the country to find and report on “heroic acts of kindness.”
Lady Gaga has used her talents and celebrity status to be part of important gender equality activism in the past. For the documentary film The Hunting Ground, for example, she was the artist who co-wrote the soundtrack Til It Happens to You, which was nominated for an Oscar award for Best Original Song. With executive producer was Ruth Ann Harnisch (one of Philanthropy Women’s lead sponsors), The Hunting Ground opened the public’s eyes to the problem of rape on college campuses.
Now with her nonprofit organization, Born This Way Foundation, Lady Gaga is finding new and creative ways to blend her artistic talents with philanthropy. It’s just another example of how women donors are finding new ways to listen to and respond to the community with philanthropy. Hopefully other celebrities and organizations can learn from Born This Way Foundation and its innovative practices.
Click here to find out more about the organizations receiving donations.