When a celebrity wants to start or endorse a charitable foundation, WSU graduate Trevor Neilson is often his or her first stop. A former aide to Bill and Melinda Gates, Neilson wants to turn celebrity philanthropy into a viable business in young Hollywood.
Last month, the actress Demi Moore and her husband, Ashton Kutcher, appeared at the United Nations on a panel announcing a United Nations-sponsored fund for victims of human trafficking. In January, they had founded the DNA Foundation, a charity to stop the brokering of young girls for sex. “The truth is, slavery, globally, is a dirty little secret,” Kutcher told an audience of 500, his voice wavering as he pointed out the average age of a sex slave is 13. “It is happening everywhere right in front of our eyes and we ignore it.”
Wearing a thigh-high crimson dress, Moore told the story of a child prostitute she met in Los Angeles who was forced to sit in a tub of ice if she did not earn $1,500 a night. “I was pained to know her options were so limited,” she said.
As the two celebrities answered the moderator’s questions, paparazzi snapping photographs mid-aisle, a dark-haired man seated behind them watched with interest: occasionally nodding in agreement, whispering in Moore’s ear, surveying the crowd. He was Trevor Neilson, the couple’s philanthropic adviser, who had arranged their appearance that day.
Movie stars and musicians have long employed managers, agents and publicists to manage their business affairs. Low-key charity and political consultants, like Margery Tabankin, who works with Barbra Streisand; and Andy Spahn, a former president of the David Geffen Foundation who has advised Steven Spielberg, are also occasionally part of the entourage.
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But few philanthropic advisers have a celebrity Rolodex as full as Neilson’s. With his wife, Maggie, a former technology executive, and Ann Kelly, a management consultant, Neilson runs a business called Global Philanthropy Group. (It lists offices in Seattle, Los Angeles and New York.) A former staffer of the Clinton White House’s travel office in 1993, he was an early supporter of Bono and his Africa initiative while working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the early 2000s. Neilson has helped steer the charitable endeavors of Angelina Jolie, the Hollywood-bad-girl-turned-human-rights-activist, whom he said he met in 2004 at a bar at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. And when Brad Pitt helped found his Make It Right Foundation in 2007, Neilson helped him devise a strategy to raise money to rebuild homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“Trevor was kind of the first person to say to me, ‘You have enormous reach, you should use it,”‘ said Olivia Wilde, the 26-year-old star of the coming movie “Tron: Legacy,” who has been talking with Neilson about starting a club for members of young Hollywood interested in learning about global issues. Indeed, Neilson’s project-client roster is broad: schools in Colombia (Shakira) and Haiti (Ben Stiller), domestic education (John Legend), microfinance (Tory Burch). “He is using existing global brands for social change,” said Bobby Shriver, a Kennedy family member who is a partner with Bono on his Africa initiatives.
Of course, outspoken devotion to a charity also allows embattled stars to rehabilitate their public-relations profiles (hence the general eye-rolling when Lindsay Lohan, who is not a client of Neilson’s, announced that she was going to Africa in 2007 after being arrested for drunken driving). But Neilson insists that is beside the point.
“For some reason, cynicism is cool,” he said on a recent morning at his office in Santa Monica, Calif. “But in my view any dollar that can be brought into an issue, any visibility that can be brought, is something that wasn’t there before. Bono didn’t start off as Bono. He was just this Irish rock dude who went to Ethiopia, experienced the famine, and became who he is today. So this judgment that everyone so enjoys is of no interest to me.”
Neilson, 38, graduated from Washington State University in 1994 with a degree in literature. He is the eldest of five children, four of whom were adopted from Korea (from 1983 to 2003 his mother, Janice, was executive director of one of the top adoption agencies in the United States; his father, Scott, worked as a juvenile court commissioner). After dropping out of law school and briefly working in public relations, Neilson got a series of jobs at foundations and nonprofit organizations, working with well-connected philanthropists and policymakers, including the billionaire Richard Branson and Richard C. Holbrooke, a former American ambassador to the United Nations who helped broker peace in Bosnia in 1995.
Neilson’s first significant brush with Hollywood celebrity came in 2001, when, as the director of special projects at the Gates Foundation in Seattle, he was approached by Bono and Shriver about a $1 million donation for a media campaign to expose the extreme poverty and AIDS crisis in Africa.
While Neilson, a fan of U2 since college, was excited about the donation; his bosses were warier and agreed to give Bono the money only if the musician could raise an additional $2 million. Neilson went further: He arranged a meeting between Gates and Bono at the Microsoft chairman’s suite at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York during the World Economic Forum in early 2002. “I did not have full authority to do so,” Neilson recalled. “I was terrified.”
But the meeting went well. Gates sent an e-mail to staff members saying so. The news was greeted coolly, though, by Neilson’s colleagues in Seattle.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Why is Bill Gates meeting this rock star?”‘ said Joe Cerrell, the director of the European office for the Gates Foundation.
Neilson was reprimanded, he said. He left the Gates Foundation in late 2002 and moved to New York to become executive director of the Global Business Coalition, a consortium of more than 200 businesses overseen at the time by Holbrooke. He also worked briefly at the Endeavor Group, a legal and philanthropic consultancy in Washington, but that gig ended in a bitter dispute, the details on which Neilson refused to elaborate.
“I don’t do well with bureaucracy,” he said, speaking generally.
He and his wife formed the Global Philanthropy Group in 2007. “I had to create the company,” he said, with a laugh. “Where else was I going to work?” He provided the vision; she the spreadsheets and action plans. “She is the pragmatic side of Trevor,” said Kris Engskov, a close friend who worked with Neilson at the White House. “He can sketch out for you a good idea. She is the one who makes it happen.”
The Neilsons moved their venture to the West Coast in 2008, a year after the stock market collapsed. Then celebrities like George Clooney and Don Cheadle, who were getting plaudits for their work in Darfur, were emerging as the new model for the actor/activist. “Trevor saw the power of personality and saw how to leverage it to do good,” Engskov said.
The Global Philanthropy Group employs seven analysts who conduct research that becomes part of a program the Neilsons design for each client, including weekly briefings (so clients know the difference between IMDb and an NGO), meetings with policymakers and events like the one at the United Nations. “Trevor’s clients are better prepared as advocates,” said Robert C. Orr, the assistant secretary-general for policy coordination and strategic planning at the United Nations, who first met Neilson when the adviser was at the Global Business Coalition. “He is not just taking their quirky view of the world and giving them a platform.”
Perhaps the hardest part of the process, though, is figuring out which cause a celebrity should champion.
Three weeks ago, a representative from the Natural Resources Defense Council met Neilson at the Santa Monica office to discuss the singer Lenny Kravitz’s new foundation. For three months Neilson had been exploring various possibilities. Early on, the staff had prepared an analysis of war and its relationship to oil dependence. That idea was nixed by Kravitz. The star was, however, interested in effects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, so today the Natural Resources Defense Council was proposing a partnership that would focus attention on the connection between energy consumption, the ocean’s rising temperature and their effect on sea life.
“If Lenny’s open to that, that’s great,” the council representative said eagerly.
Neilson was hopeful. But Gary Gersh, Kravitz’s manager, who also represents Legend, another Global Philanthropy client, proved cool to the idea.
“Sure, I want to make sure we are taking care of the oceans,” Gersh said at a meeting at his office in nearby Venice, several hours later. “Our thing is how do we hone in on that?”
Neilson was back to square one. He and Gersh agreed to meet with Kravitz in the Bahamas this month.
“Artists have to be very careful that when they speak that they know what they are speaking about,” Gersh said.
Most mornings Neilson, who is 6-foot-2, his head large in proportion to his shoulders, can be found on his paddleboard in the surf near Malibu. Afterward, he hangs the board on a fence outside the kitchen window of his cottage in the Pacific Palisades, which has a porch overflowing with pink roses.
He showed a guest the view of the ocean, a block from his house, stopping to marvel at the horizon from three different spots. “I like my life,” he said.
But after two years in Los Angeles, Hollywood culture is still something of an enigma to him.
A few weeks ago, he met with Diana Bianchini, an event planner at Di Moda Public Relations, in his office. She offered, as part of a suite of services, to tint the window of a celebrity’s car. “We aren’t so concerned about window tint,” Neilson said.
Bianchini, a former runway model, boasted that she was part of a network of socialites who are on the same museum boards. “Is this a real network?” Neilson blurted.
He asked if she could organize a charity fashion show for the pop star Rihanna.
“That’s for the ladies who lunch at the Beverly Wilshire,” Bianchini sniffed. “Can I just tell you? That’s boorrring.”
Neilson had a more significant clash with Jolie (whom he said he nominated to be a member of the Council on Foreign Relations) in part because he was repeatedly quoted speaking on her behalf regarding humanitarian aid. In a March 2007 piece on The Huffington Post, Neilson was identified as her “publicist” (Jolie does not have a publicist). Neilson contends that Jolie “outgrew” him — she maintains her own relationships with diplomats — and they split in 2008. He was replaced as her philanthropic adviser by Neilson’s former employer, the Endeavor Group, in Washington. The Neilsons both acknowledged there was tension with Geyer Kosinski, the actress’ manager, who declined to comment.
But the Global Philanthropy Group is experiencing robust growth without Jolie. It currently advises 20 clients, some who pay $150,000 to $200,000 a year for the consulting work offered by the Neilsons and their staff. Neilson said that he is talking to two possible new clients, professional basketball players, and that he wants to create an organization in Los Angeles modeled after the Robin Hood Foundation in New York.
His wife, though, worries about serving current clients, perhaps with justification. “Because they are doing so much their time gets spread thin,” their client Moore said of the Neilsons in a recent interview. “You need someone staying up on everything.”
It was Kutcher, she said, who came up with the idea for their “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” campaign. But when the couple spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative, they were coached by Neilson about what to expect.
“It was really helpful to have someone buffering, guiding us,” she said.
Asked about the Neilsons’ impact on the philanthropic strategy she has formed with her husband, Moore replied, “I think we have a true democracy.”