Sharon Stone, Charlize Theron on Hollywood Philanthropy at THR Summit

Optimism in the face of uncertainty was the tune of the day at the inaugural Social Impact Summit, co-hosted by The Hollywood Reporter and the Social Impact Fund on Thursday.

The summit, focusing on “The Future of Hollywood Philanthropy” and presented by biopharmaceutical company Gilead, buzzed with hope and a sense of urgency as Hollywood leaders, philanthropic innovators and on-the-ground volunteers packed the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles. There was a defiant sense that the old ways were not working anymore — galas are out, giving circles are in.

“Our goal today is not only to inspire new ways of doing good but to also spark conversations around what works and what can be done better,” Craig Cichy, executive director of the Social Impact Fund (winners of the 2023 THR award for Philanthropic Organization of the Year), noted in his opening remarks.

In a rousing, expletive-sprinkled keynote address, actress and longtime activist Sharon Stone challenged the audience to see philanthropy in a new light: simply that of love. She recalled how the values of being a good and giving neighbor were instilled in her by her parents and recounted the lessons she had learned in her decades-long role as an activist on the frontline of the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic, particularly as a longtime supporter of amfAR.

“In the beginning, I thought, ‘I am going to find the cure for AIDS,’” she recalled. “’I will get the money. I will do this thing!’ I was young, and I really thought that Elizabeth Taylor, she got this thing going. And look at me, I’m going to wrap it up.”

But over the course of her work, Stone has come to see activism as an act of persevering, forgiving and growing. “I’ve been on my knees a lot, and I will tell you that if you cannot forgive, you cannot serve. You must learn to forgive, and you must learn to give,” she declared, adding, “Even if someone pushed you to the ground, you better reach out and put up your hand, and you better let that very same motherfucker pick you up because that is the way the world works. And if you think you are here to do anything else on this planet, you have not yet learned the meaning of love, the meaning of giving, and the meaning of philanthropy.”

Sharon Stone

Rich Polk for The Hollywood Reporter

A feisty and impassioned Wilson Cruz, who serves as board chair of GLSEN, noted the daunting task of trying to make a difference. “It can feel overwhelming. We want to fix the entire world all by ourselves, but when we shrink the world down to our little corner, we can figure out what we can do in this moment to change the world,” he said.

Cruz moderated the event’s first panel, “How Hollywood Partnerships and Corporate Giving are Fueling the Fight Against HIV.” Panelists highlighted the ongoing AIDS epidemic, and how it is disproportionately affecting women, trans people and communities of color around the world. “AIDS can’t see who’s poor and who’s marginalized. It’s us,” said panelist Charlize Theron, founder of the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project. “We’re creating systems in our world that are allowing these viruses to flourish. And if we can’t see that, and if we can’t acknowledge it, we’re never going to get to the core of this issue.”

Theron was joined on the panel by an inspiring group attempting to improve these core issues, including Neo Mohajane, program director of HIVSA’s Healthy Systems Strengthening; Dominque Morgan, director of the Fund for Trans Generations at Borealis Philanthropy; Carmen Villar, vp of ESG and corporate citizenship at Gilead Sciences; and DaShawn Usher, senior director for Communities of Color and Media at GLAAD.

Morgan highlighted the importance of what she calls “cultural capital,” highlighting how influencers and Hollywood power players can be effective by leveraging their platforms to give voice to marginalized communities and draw attention to actionable causes. “Do not underestimate your power when it comes to shifting these issues. And yes, there is the dollar investment,” she told the audience. “Capitalism is what we have to navigate. It should not be what holds us hostage.”

Theron agreed, joking that although she felt like she “stuck out like a sore thumb” on a panel of changemakers, she knew she had been gifted with a valuable opportunity to help.

Charlize Theron and Wilson Cruz

Jesse Grant for The Hollywood Reporter

“I think the thing that I try to bring to the table with our incredible team that works at CTAOP is not being uncomfortable with the idea that I do have access to a bigger stage and just doing the right thing, just utilizing it to my max,” she said. “If I find myself in a room where I have enough power to bring somebody with me who can speak to their experience, I don’t have to be the one to tell that story. That’s, I think, a real superpower.”

Acting with this intentional focus on people’s stories and scalable change through the power of Hollywood was also a theme during the second panel discussion, “Leveraging Hollywood for Raising Funds and Awareness for Crucial Causes.” Moderated by THR contributing editor Stacey Wilson Hunt, the panel included the Social Impact Fund’s Cichy; Andrea Pett-Joseph, talent manager as well as president of the Epidermolysis Bullosa Medical Research Foundation; Dennis St. Rose, executive of CAA Foundation; Thomas Sadoski, ambassador for War Child USA; and Uzo Aduba, an ambassador for Heifer International.

St. Rose spoke of the importance of making sure that creatives in Hollywood are the right fit for bringing awareness to different philanthropic causes and campaigns. He also discussed CAA’s “Full Story” initiative, which helps clients shape culture and change perceptions through online resources, thoughtful and inclusive staffing, and integrated campaigns for films and television.

“It would be great if while you’re watching a show, there is a resource that’s being created in conjunction with a nonprofit out there that leads in that issue area that actually teaches people things that they need to know that can change their perceptions on issues, can increase empathy around a population, an underrepresented voice,” he said.

An undercurrent of frustration with the status quo was voiced by many throughout the summit, including Sadoski, who urged influencers and celebrities to stop with performative, exploitative social media activism and actually get their hands dirty. “I started working on the ground in active war zones,” the actor said of his work with War Child. “I don’t bring or allow cameras to be around because people are suffering enough. The last thing they need is somebody shoving a camera in their face. Everybody in this room can understand that if your child is literally dying of starvation in your arms, you don’t want somebody showing up with a wide-angle lens and photographing not only your misery but your shame.”

Dennis St. Rose, Uzo Aduba, Craig Cichy, Andrea Pett-Joseph, Thomas Sadoski and Stacey Wilson Hunt

Jesse Grant for The Hollywood Reporter

However, while a disgusted Sadoski said he has given up social media altogether, his fellow actor Aduba believes social media can be a useful tool if utilized thoughtfully and intentionally. “We’ve had enough of the story of people from a place who have no power whatsoever and … here comes someone saving them,” she said. “That story has been told countless times. I was interested in using my social media to instead spotlight stories that show people being given the agency to help themselves.”

Indeed, the power of technology in fostering community-based activism both at a hyper-local and corporate level is changing the face of philanthropy. This was the focus of the last panel, “Inside Philanthropy’s Boldest and Most Innovative Players and Platforms.” Moderated by THR deputy editor Degen Pener, the panel consisted of Ben Erwin, CEO of Charitybuzz; Muneer Panjwani, CEO of Engage for Good; and Emily Rasmussen, founder and CEO of Grapevine.

Panjwani noted that ways of gifting are shifting, with younger people often donating to non-traditional, hyper-personal charitable endeavors like GoFundMe.com. Rasmussen also explained how Grapevine and its eponymous website empower community giving circles, a form of diversifying and democratizing philanthropy that was fostered initially in local women’s movements. These collective giving movements are the fastest-growing form of philanthropy today.

Erwin is a veteran of this new frontier of giving, having started Charitybuzz over 15 years ago. The organization offers unique experiences with celebrities, gives access to exclusive events and merchandise, and even has a private members club. A portion of all of these endeavors goes to charities, with over a half billion dollars raised so far. By offering these experiences, Erwin not only enables celebrities and influencers to donate their time and resources but also taps into the 27 percent of GDP that Americans spend on non-essential activities like travel and experiences.

Erwin pointed to the suicide prevention campaign that director Zack Snyder, whose daughter died by suicide, launched alongside the release of the director’s cut of Justice League as the perfect example of this new frontier.

“He knew that if he was going to come back and finish his vision for the film, he had to weave in some work awareness and fundraising for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention,” Erwin explained. “So, through opportunities to attend exclusive screenings to a partnership with a famous sneaker designer who created these one-of-a-kind priceless sneakers to limited edition prints, he took the opportunity to activate this rabid fan base that loves Zack Snyder…to raise awareness for what became his new mission in life, which was to raise awareness and funds for suicide prevention.”

Panjwani also noted that corporations are ensuring their dollars go to more than just traditional models of giving back. “It’s not just about doing a PSA, it’s not just about creating a T-shirt where $2 goes to a charity, it’s how do we build campaigns that are truly integrated into the business so that the benefit is not just to the cause but also to the business.”

The afternoon ended with many in the audience crying tears of happy joy, as Julie Bowen presented Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, with the THR’s 2024 Philanthropic Organization of the Year Award. Feeding America is the largest charity in the U.S., with a nationwide network of 200 food banks and over 60,000 agencies serving every community in the United States. On behalf of the event, Cichy also presented a $25,000 grant to Feeding America, which Babineaux-Fontenot noted will provide 250,000 meals for people in need.

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, Uzo Aduba and Julie Bowen

Jesse Grant for The Hollywood Reporter

In her moving and soft-spoken acceptance speech, Babineaux-Fontenot emphasized the enormous potential of Hollywood to affect change and said she could never write a list to read of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers and the people they served because it would be so long it would fill the theater. She ended on a poignant note, saying that she hopes one day a charity like Feeding America will not be needed at all.

“It was … maybe prayer that I had coming here,” she said. “It was that somehow a moment would come, and it wouldn’t take too much longer when the richest country in the history of civilization would decide — because it’s a choice — that it is unacceptable for 44 million human beings to not have the food that they need to thrive. So, I thought about the little paper that people stuff in their pockets, I thought about how big the piece of paper would have to be for me to call each of them by name as they would deserve. And I also thought about the fact that I plan to leave here hopeful because here you are doing what you do. You’re a part of the change that’s necessary, and that maybe the next time I see you, the paper won’t be so big that it wouldn’t fit inside of this theater. And then maybe it’ll be smaller than that. And then what if before too long it was smaller than that? And then what if?”

With that lingering call to action, the summit was done, and the real work began. The inaugural summit was sponsored by Gilead, Charitybuzz, Jackson Family Wines and Voss.

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