The following is a conversation between Nicole Sexton, President and CEO of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: It was back in 1942 when Samuel Goldwyn, along with pals such as Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, founded what was to become the Entertainment Industry Foundation. And ever since then, EIF, as it is commonly known, has been the entertainment community’s trusted partner in philanthropy. And it’s a delight to have with us tonight their President and CEO, Nicole Sexton.
Good evening, Nicole, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Nicole: Good evening. Nice to see you.
Denver: Share with the listeners some of the history of EIF and the unique role the organization plays.
Nicole: So, one important founder that we left off was Joan Crawford. There was a woman in the mix. EIF was founded to be the collective voice of the entertainment industry at the time. So, key to its architecture were Sam Goldwyn and the Warner Brothers in that they brought two studios together, and from there, actors from both studios. As time has gone on, agencies have played a role in our board makeup; television networks also have a seat on our board. And it is this unique mix of cause, purpose, and power around a singular board table that allows EIF to do some pretty extraordinary things.
One of those is to do what is called a “roadblock,” which is when all network channels across all digital platforms and streaming platforms for the major networks are blocked for one important message. And so, that’s often used for education, for healthcare, particularly with Stand Up To Cancer. That is the kind of power that a board like ours can take advantage of or harness. I like to think of the board as the Nasdaq of philanthropy in Hollywood.
Denver: Well, that is quite extraordinary. Would the primary focus of the organization be supporting Hollywood – and by that, I mean the Greater Los Angeles community – or the causes of the celebrities who live and work there?
Denver: Actually, it’s a little of both. In the beginning, one of the first efforts was a war bond effort. There was also a push to start a community arts fund, which still exists today – the LA County Community Arts Fund – and Permanent Charities, as we were originally known, was the seed funder for that effort.
As time has marched on and celebrities are using their platforms to take up more individual and personal causes, there has been a role for EIF to play in helping to support their administrative needs in whatever cause they choose to impact. So, we might handle all of their fundraising back-end. We might handle all of their reporting and filing. They can start what’s called a “fund” with us, which is essentially an account in which they raise all of their money and deploy all of those assets towards whatever cause or interest they have, and that’s called fiscal sponsorship.
…the whole entertainment industry uses its opportunity and uses its power to help message, to help develop messages, to place messages…so it really has the ability to move funding and awareness along at a record pace, which is a real asset.
Denver: Absolutely. There are a lot of influential people in Hollywood who are passionate about their cause; and beyond fiscal sponsorship, they want you to get really fully behind it, and I know you can’t do everything. So how do you determine which ones to get behind, and which ones you have to say no to?
Nicole: There are a lot of things that will seem to come together for the perfect storm. Literally, in the case of crisis response and environmental response, EIF has been the administrative partner to the entertainment industry for the past 18 years, starting with Hope for Haiti Now. And there have been, unfortunately, numerous events of a grand scale in which the entertainment community wanted to step up and either raise funds or awareness. The most recent effort that we supported was the devastating wildfires throughout California, and we helped first responders with some equipment needs as well as local animal rescue and supporting families who have been displaced by the wildfires across the state.
But the whole entertainment industry uses its opportunity and uses its power to help message, to help develop messages, to place messages…so it really has the ability to move funding and awareness along at a record pace, which is a real asset. However, it is important to make sure that all interests are aligned, as you’ve said, so that you can take advantage of the full impact of the organization.
There are so many great causes out there. There are so many worthy organizations that would love to have a little bit of spotlight. Our board has chosen, in the healthcare space, Stand Up To Cancer and cancer as their focus. And then outside of that, we usually have two or three cornerstone projects.
One of the things that we’ve done since I have been with the organization is to bring back fiscal partnership as a way of helping those who work in the entertainment field realize the full vision of their philanthropy, and not every person in the entertainment industry or otherwise needs to start their own nonprofit in order to have deep impact.
Denver: Despite having been around for these 77 years that we’ve talked about – I think you’ve generated over $1 billion in philanthropy for worthy causes – you have not been fully understood or appreciated by some, even in Hollywood. And I know as part of your charge, Nicole, you were asked to reimagine and rebrand the organization when you came on board in 2017. What have been some of the things you’ve been doing in this regard?
Nicole: Well, the feeling has always been that the causes should stand before the organization. In the case of Stand Up to Cancer as a program, there are very few people – unless you’re inside of Hollywood or in the industry in some way – who would recognize that EIF is actually the organizing body that is behind the program which is Stand Up to Cancer. The same thing with our disaster response. We have something that will help to identify and tell the story of what we’re trying to impact, but the Entertainment Industry Foundation is not often the thing that people think of when they think of giving.
One of the things that we’ve done is create programs that have a marquee or a brand that we can use as a way to solicit funds and get people excited about what we’re trying to impact. One of the things that we’ve done since I have been with the organization is to bring back fiscal partnership as a way of helping those who work in the entertainment field realize the full vision of their philanthropy, and not every person in the entertainment industry or otherwise needs to start their own nonprofit in order to have deep impact. You can partner with an organization, or you can set up a fund and have just as much impact without some of the administrative hurdles that you’d have to go through, and you can get started right away.
I think for many in the entertainment field, their time and talents and their vision is much better spent on being creative and figuring out how to use their platform and their voice, versus filing paperwork and making sure that they’ve filled out their 990s correctly. So that’s one of the things we’ve done.
We’ve had some good success, and just as you’ve said, the most well-intentioned individuals can get tripped up. In the world of social media, it only takes one tweet to start a firestorm. So, it is important to know what you’re doing, to partner with people who can help you make smart decisions, and to protect yourself as much as you can.
Denver: Now, I do applaud you for that. I was thinking that we have about 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in a country of a bit over 300 million people, and that’s a 1:200 ratio, which is a bit crazy.
I do know that with a lot of these entertainers, they’re worried about their reputation. And they can be the most upright, upstanding citizens and do a job, but they’re not doing the back end properly, and it can come back to bite them. And to be able to take that off their plate is really a great…
Nicole: It’s really helpful. Also, a lot of really extraordinary, well-intentioned, and super smart, talented individuals hire a cousin or an aunt or a brother who is also well-intentioned, but just perhaps not equipped to manage all of the aspects. Philanthropy is a business and so there are expectations—
Denver: The IRS is an agency.
Nicole: That’s right. So it is, I think, a relief to many. We’ve had some good success, and just as you’ve said, the most well-intentioned individuals can get tripped up. In the world of social media, it only takes one tweet to start a firestorm. So, it is important to know what you’re doing, to partner with people who can help you make smart decisions, and to protect yourself as much as you can.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit more about the Stand Up to Cancer because perhaps that’s the best known of all the programs that you have generated. How did that get started? What’s on tap for this year?
Nicole: So, Stand Up To Cancer is going into its 12th year. It’s in its 11th year now. So, this 12thyear, we’ll have another one of its groundbreaking roadblock telecasts.
It was founded by 10 women who were all close friends or had worked with Laura Ziskin. She was suffering from cancer, and she was really the driving force behind their push to do something unexpected. These extraordinary women have been incredible in their ability to not only take advantage of the tools of the Entertainment Industry Foundation and the community in which the foundation works, but also leveraging science, technology, and the pharmaceutical and science communities to create these dream teams…and really have put in motion some pretty catalytic research, and had some unbelievable outcomes in a relatively quick period of time.
Denver: You have over 100 teams that you have helped to fund. When is this year’s roadblock going to be?
Nicole: It’s every other year, and it’s always in the Fall. So, about a year and some change from now.
Denver: You talked about disaster relief a few moments ago, and you have a signature program around that which is Music for Relief. Speak to that.
Nicole: Music for Relief was started by the band Linkin Park about 14 years ago. Two years ago, when they lost a band member, the members of the group were struggling with the “What’s next?” not only as professional musicians but also for their philanthropy.
And so, they came to EIF to discuss how we might take what they had created and the extraordinary impact that they had around the world in stepping in when disaster struck, and how they might either turn that into a fund, or we even discussed at that time sunsetting what they had built. As they talked, as we learned more, we realized that EIF had been in the disaster or crisis response business for a number of years, but we didn’t really have the architecture in place.
So, by bringing Music for Relief into EIF and actually making it our official crisis response program, it allowed us to ramp up really quickly. The model is very similar to other programmatic models that we’ve created, where we have an advisory council of experts in the field…so from agencies and organizations that are on the ground the minute disaster strikes. They are really at the center of the success of the program because they speak to our board, and they speak to the entire industry on best volunteer opportunities, where there’s most need for financial resources, where they can send supplies or goods, or what they should be focusing on, which agencies are doing the best work and how they can impact them.
And it is through their counsel that the community has been responding, and it’s worked pretty well. I know it’s a relatively new model, but I’ve been so pleased and so moved by the incredible success and the coming together of the industry.
I am a voter. ™ is completely apolitical. It is only about inspiring, getting people to register, and being sure that they have the tools they need – transportation, equipment, whatever it may be – that that there’s a place to answer questions so they make it to the polls.
Denver: Let me ask you about one more, and this would be a public awareness campaign, which is I am a voter.™.
Nicole: I am a voter. ™ is a great campaign. We started that 10 weeks before the 2018 elections, and as we all know there was a great push to increase voter turnout in the midterm elections. Just as you mentioned, there were a number of organizations that helped to push voter turnout, and I think everybody feels really good about the increase in turnout in 2018.
I am a voter. ™ is completely apolitical. It is only about inspiring, getting people to register, and being sure that they have the tools they need: transportation, equipment, whatever it may be…that there’s a place to answer questions so they make it to the polls. Our only goal is to get as many people registered and voting as we can.
So, there will be another effort, a more robust effort around 2020 because we have the gift of a bit more time, and there will be quite a bit of focus on the 2020 elections.
Denver: You did an awful lot with that already. You had I think over $1 million of donated space and a billion, 1.5 billion impressions. Amazing!
Nicole: We did. I can take no credit. There are some extraordinary women and men who are behind the effort…who conceived of the idea, and then came together and brought others under the tent in order to create something pretty special in a very short period of time.
There are so many ways to engage the entertainment community, but the first thing that you need to understand is that if it’s not authentic, it won’t last, and people will see right through it and probably not respond well to it.
Denver: Nicole, are there any innovations or trends that you’re seeing in the Hollywood philanthropic community – the charitable scene, if you will – that could spread to other communities across the country in the near future?
Nicole: There are so many ways to engage the entertainment community, but the first thing that you need to understand is that if it’s not authentic, it won’t last, and people will see right through it and probably not respond well to it. So, finding causes, or aligning yourself with individuals who have already identified causes, that have some symmetry with your message or mission is the first and most important thing to do. And where you can pool resources…don’t be afraid to open up the conversation about doing something that’s of mutual benefit because from there, you can really build a relationship and a partnership with someone, and it’s not so transactional.
Denver: And it seems, at least from what I’ve been able to observe, celebrities are using social media a lot more now than perhaps just showing up at a gala the way they did, and are having greater impact.
Nicole: They’re having greater impact. There are virtual meet-and-greets that you can do as celebrities now – backstage at a concert or after an event. They can tee up a half a dozen virtual meet-and-greets, and it feels like you’re right there talking to the individual, asking questions. It’s a great way for people to take full advantage of their time, no matter where they are, and impact causes that they care about.
Denver: Tell us a little bit about EIF. You’re a nonprofit organization. Who funds you? What are your sources of revenue?
Nicole: We are funded through our programs. We don’t really do any general fundraising for EIF as an organization. We build these programs that have impact, and from there, we’ll have private donors, foundations, corporations. We cover our costs; we run a very lean team. And then the rest goes back into the organizations that are doing the great work.
…we have some extraordinarily talented individuals. It’s wonderful to see them conceive of an idea, and then bounce it around the table and turn it into something kind of magical…I feel really blessed every day because I get to surround myself with people a whole lot smarter than I am, and they keep things moving, and they keep it fun. There’s a lot of joy in our office.
Denver: Speaking about that lean team, what is it like to work at EIF? What is your corporate culture? What do you think makes it really special?
Nicole: I think that we have some extraordinarily talented individuals. It’s wonderful to see them conceive of an idea, and then bounce it around the table and turn it into something kind of magical. And so, I feel really blessed every day because I get to surround myself with people a whole lot smarter than I am, and they keep things moving, and they keep it fun. There’s a lot of joy in our office.
I really enjoy the people. I’m inspired by them. I’m grateful to them, and I’m consistently moved by how invested and creative they are.
Denver: Well, that’s great. What part of your job do you enjoy the most? What do you find to be the most difficult?
Nicole: I’ll end on a happy note.
The most difficult is being away from New York as that’s home, and that’s where my family and friends are. I have not been shy – I’m working on it – but I’ve not been shy about that being a pretty difficult move for me.
What do I enjoy the most? I enjoy the people. I really enjoy the people. I’m inspired by them. I’m grateful to them, and I’m consistently moved by how invested and creative they are.
…when you work in an inclusive environment, or when you’re a part of an organization or participate in something that is truly inclusive, nobody looks the same, and everybody adds something special to the mix.
Denver: Let me close with this, Nicole. Is there any place you would love to take EIF that you haven’t gone yet, but at least you’re beginning to think about?
Nicole: There’s a lot of conversation about inclusion and access, and I think that there is a lot of opportunity to get it right in many spheres. We talk about inclusion almost as though it’s a kind of a punch word because when we talk about it, we talk about it in silos. And so, a lot of the programmatic opportunities that we’re looking at now are how to break those barriers down. Because when you work in an inclusive environment, or when you’re a part of an organization or participate in something that is truly inclusive, nobody looks the same, and everybody adds something special to the mix.
I just don’t think we’re there yet. I think we talk about it a lot, but I don’t think we’re there yet. And so, if EIF, through using the tool of entertainment in Hollywood, and through the wonderful platform that we have, can help to really inspire a dynamic kind of everything in a place where everybody feels accepted and included, that would be great.
Denver: It sounds to me what you’re trying to do is change the mindset first, and the behaviors will follow.
Nicole: Yes. That is what we’re trying to do. More to come.
Denver: More to come. Stay tuned. Well, Nicole Sexton, the President and CEO of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening.
For people who want to get involved in any one of these causes – Stand Up To Cancer or the others that you’re behind – tell us a little bit about your website and some of the info you’ve got on it.
Nicole: eifoundation.org has all of the history of our organization. It also has all of our philanthropic partners where we offer fiscal sponsorship. So, we have everything from a project that is doing extraordinary work around educating young women in South Africa, to a young entertainer who wants to help kids on the street in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are a lot of programs, and there’s a lot of opportunity to be a part of some impact. It’s also really great to see what people are really investing themselves in. And then, of course, Stand Up To Cancer and Music for Relief are also on our website as well.
Denver: Along with your education program.
Nicole: Along with our education program.
Denver: Well, thanks, Nicole. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Nicole: Thank you so much.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.