Take away the lights, the cameras, the action and the red carpets — and you’ve got a group of public figures who spend their free time (and their earned dollars) giving back to charitable causes. Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Mutual Insurance has released a list of the 10 celebrities most influential about their causes. “We wanted to go out to the marketplace and find out what people think about volunteerism in general,” said Chad Jester, president of the Nationwide Foundation. “There are a lot of folks throughout the country who are doing wonderful things who are not celebrities. However, asking about the celebrities was noteworthy, because it’s a sign that Americans can actually be influenced by these public figures, some of whom have been engaged for years in their cause.”
1. JERRY LEWIS
Respondents who said this celebrity has been most effective in spreading the word on his or her cause: 43 percent
Lewis’ annual Labor Day MDA Telethon to fight muscular dystrophy raised a record $63.7 million last weekend. Leading the donations was the International Association of Fire Fighters. The 81-year-old Lewis helped establish the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 1952 and the comedian, actor, film producer, writer and director has served as national chairman of the association ever since. “What makes Jerry Lewis so visible with the public is the sustainability he’s had with this cause,” said Jester. “Regardless of age or generation, people know about his commitment to giving back. Maybe he’s not as visible as others, but his commitment to his cause really stands out.”
2. OPRAH WINFREY
America’s richest celebrity, according to Forbes Magazine, is also one of the most charitable. The talk show host, publisher and actress established The Oprah Winfrey Foundation in 1987 to aid women, children and families. Oprah’s Angel Network, which was formed in 1998, also raises money for charitable causes around the world. One day last fall, every member of Oprah’s audience took home $1,000 and a Sony DVD Handycam — she challenged her 300-plus member audience to donate their money to a charitable cause. And in January, she opened The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy, a school just south of Johannesburg. The academy selects girls whose family income is less than $700 a month; eventually, the school plans to cater to 450 girls who show outstanding promise but whose families cannot support their education.
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3. MICHAEL J. FOX
The Canadian-born Fox, 46, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease — a degenerative disease that cripples the nervous system — in 1991. He went public seven years later and in 2000 created The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which is dedicated to ensuring the development of a cure for Parkinson’s disease within this decade through an aggressively funded research agenda. In his memoir, “Lucky Man,” which was published in 2003, Fox describes his childhood in Canada, his award-winning TV and film career and ultimately his evolution into an advocate for Parkinson’s research and awareness.
4. JIMMY CARTER
The former president founded The Carter Center in 1982 with his wife, Rosalynn, after leaving office in 1981. The Atlanta-based center has helped improve the quality of life for people in more than 70 countries. He also a supports charities such as Declare Yourself and Heifer International. But Carter is probably best known for his work with Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit organization that helps needy people in the U.S. and abroad renovate and build homes. The Carters volunteer hands-on one week a year. In 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”
5. BILL GATES
With an estimated net worth of $56 billion, Gates is the richest man in the world, and has donated oodles of his cash to charity. In 2000, the Microsoft co-founder and his wife established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aimed at fighting infectious disease (hepatitis B, AIDS, malaria) and improving high schools. It’s the richest foundation in the world, with a total endowment of $34.6 billion, which includes $1.6 billion from the first installment of the highly publicized gift from Warren Buffett. Beginning next July, Gates will move to a part-time role within Microsoft in order to begin a full-time career in philanthropy; he’ll remain chairman. Gates credits Buffett with influencing his decision to commit himself to charitable causes.
6. ANGELINA JOLIE
Jolie — she of the Brangelina duo with adopted children from overseas — recently told Esquire magazine of her wish to be remembered more for her charity work than her acting. She said, “When I die, do I want to be remembered as an actress? No. I recently had an op-ed [column] published in a newspaper. And at the end, it didn’t say I was an actress. It said that I was a U.N. goodwill ambassador and that’s all. And I was really proud.” Last week, Jolie traveled to Iraq to meet with refugees and U.S. troops. She’s a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which currently assists 20 million refugees in approximately 120 countries, and has traveled extensively to refugee camps in Africa, Asia and South America. In June, Jolie joined forces with the foreign policy organization Council on Foreign Relations.
U2 frontman Bono has been a visible leader in the fight against AIDS and poverty. He has helped to create several organizations devoted to those causes, including the ONE Campaign and DATA (which stands for “debt AIDS trade Africa”). In 2006, Bono launched (Red), which calls upon some of the world’s most iconic brands to produce (Product) Red branded goods. A percentage of the proceeds helps women and children affected by HIV-AIDS in Africa. Bono, his wife, Ali Hewson, and designer Rogan Gregory have also created Edun, a clothing company aimed at stimulating trade with poverty stricken countries. The U.S. National Constitution Center has said it will honor Bono for his charity work in Africa by awarding him the Liberty Medal at the end of this month.
8. LANCE ARMSTRONG
The seven-time winner of the Tour de France established the Lance Armstrong Foundation within months of being diagnosed with testicular cancer. The organization is dedicated to providing practical information and tools people need to battle cancer and have full lives through education, advocacy, research grants and public health programs. The motto “Livestrong” became a symbol for millions through Armstrong’s simple yellow wristband, part of the foundation’s “Wear Yellow Live Strong” educational program, whose initial effort was to raise $5 million in cooperation with Nike Inc. The target was achieved within six months, and there have now been 70 million Livestrong bands sold to date.
9. KATIE COURIC
After losing her husband, Jay Monahan, to colon cancer in 1998, Couric became a crusader in the fight against the disease. In 2000, she launched the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance with Lily Tartikoff and has established various events dedicated to raising money and awareness for early screening and testing. In fact, researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa titled Couric’s crusade “The Katie Couric Effect.” The phrase refers to the impact the “CBS Evening News” anchor has had on the increasing number of people undergoing a colonoscopy. The Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health opened in 2004 at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
10. ROSIE O’DONNELL
Ten years ago, the outspoken and controversial O’Donnell established Rosie’s For All Kids Foundation, a nonprofit charity dedicated to helping America’s children by supporting nonprofit programs that serve disadvantaged children. With a combination of contributions from products and events sponsored by O’Donnell herself, along with other contributions, the foundation has raised approximately $60 million. The foundation has established 27 child care centers in low-income urban areas and has provided funding for child care issues through the Early Childhood Care and Education grant program. After Hurricane Katrina, the foundation contributed more than $3 million to provide aid and support to displaced children and their families.