Nonprofits have long known that the reasons why donors give, the ways they give, and how they wish to be recognized for their gifts are highly individualized and driven by reasons as personal and complex as the people who write the checks. Over the holiday weekend, we all received a reminder of this. When the world lost ’80s heartthrob, musician, and gay icon George Michael on Christmas Day, we also lost an extraordinary philanthropist.
Stories of Michael’s low-key and sometimes secret philanthropy came spilling out, giving the whole world a glimpse at George Michael as seen through the lens of his charity work. Two large beneficiaries were UK charities the Terrence Higgins Trust and Childline. After losing his partner, Brazilian designer Anselmo Feleppa, to complications from HIV in 1993, Michael worked with the Terrence Higgins Trust. Jane Barron from Terrence Higgins said Michael made many donations and gifts to the trust, including gifting the royalties of his Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me duet with Elton John in 1991. Michael also donated memorabilia and experiences that were used as auction items to raise critical funds for those living with HIV and AIDS.
At Childline, Dame Esther Rantzen, the president and founder, revealed that Michael had given the royalties from his 1996 number-one single Jesus To A Child to the charity. She told the Daily Mail, “For years now he has been the most extraordinarily generous philanthropist, giving money to Childline, but he was determined not to make his generosity public, so no one outside the charity knew how much he gave to the nation’s most vulnerable children.” The group was in the process of planning a 30th anniversary tribute celebrating George Michael as a donor.
Just as touching were stories of his everyday generosity to those in need. His giving style of quietly and anonymously helping programs with basic funding to sustain critical programs is a throwback to an almost-bygone era in philanthropy. Modern donors too often want new programs along with complete control and big recognition. Michael just wanted the recipients of his gifts to keep serving their clients for years to come.
Stories tumbled all over social media about Michael’s help to everyday citizens with the costs of starting a family or erasing school debt. An advocate for humane pet ownership, he led a group of celebrity pet owners to speak out against the illegal importation and sale of pets sold online, often raised abroad in deplorable “puppy mill” conditions, with Blue Cross. He advocated for increased government authority to regulate the conditions in which pets at pet stores were kept. As a supporter of art heritage, he paid over a million dollars at auction in 2000 for a piano belonging to the late George Harrison, ensuring that the instrument would remain in Britain and be displayed at The Beatles Story, a Liverpool Beatles museum.
It is clear that the nonprofits that were able to work with and collaborate with George Michael saw a different side of the superstar, and they are better off for it.—Carrie Collins-Fadell