Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.


Behind the facade

Q: Should we admire Haitian singer Wyclef Jean for his charitable work even if it turns out that some of the money raised by his foundation, Yele Haiti, has been spent in questionable ways? How often do successful, high-profile people disappoint their admirers or lose their trust? And is that kind of trust be misguided in the first place?

Upon winning yet another Golden Globe last Sunday, renowned actress Meryl Streep observed that, "In my long career, I've played so many extraordinary women that I'm getting mistaken for one." Such humility and self awareness is a rare commodity in Hollywood and other places where, too often, celebrities start believing their own press releases.

Streep's wry comment illuminates the dark side of fame -- fans only really know the actor by the roles played, confusing facades for the real person. Inevitably, especially in this media-saturated age, events occur that pierce the false front of fame, exposing the flawed human being behind the curtain.

Tiger Woods. Gilbert Arenas. Mark McGwire. Sammy Sosa. John Edwards. Martha Stewart. Their very human transgressions seemed all the worse because they were famous, people looked up to them.

Wyclef Jean's problems with his charitable foundation pale in comparison to reports of Tiger's trysts and Gilbert's guns. Overdue filing of charitable tax returns might not seem as serious as Martha's insider-trading scandal that landed her a gig redecorating a prison cell at Alderson.

Yet, even a whiff of self-dealing or financial scandal can diminish Yele Haiti's opportunities for success as a significant source of funds for Haiti relief. Wyclef will have to do more than post tear-streaked denials on You Tube; a prudent charitable foundation leader would quickly announce and implement safeguards to ensure that no further questions arise even as past problems get fixed immediately.

In an age that encourages "The Smoking Gun" and other websites, blogs and various publications about the private lives and transgressions of the famous and powerful, celebrities who wish to remain in good standing with their adoring fans need to take extra precautions to safeguard their reputations and relationships with the public.

First, those who truly wish to share their wealth for good causes should consider putting the management of their charitable gifts in other hands entirely. Wyclef Jean seems too close to Yele Haiti. He might be better advised to choose an independent organization to manage gifts donated for Haiti relief, e.g., Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, or similar organizations.

He could also create a truly independent foundation with independent management. While it's true that many wealthy people create and manage their own charitable foundations, Wyclef's fame suggests that he should strive for a greater arms-length relationship to protect his reputation and the trust of his fans and donors.

Second, everyone in a position of public trust and admiration -- especially those with packs of reporters and photographers trailing them -- must understand that there are no secrets in modern life. Because that celebrity facade is so carefully constructed most of the time, the efforts to tear down the wall are relentless. Any celebrity, politician, public leader, or yes, college president who thinks that she or he can hide unsavory personal conduct from public discovery is delusional.

True success, personally and professionally,requires a well-integrated personality that is the same on stage and behind closed doors. Meryl Streep's humble statement belies the fact that she, herself, is an extraordinary woman in her own right with a reputation for generosity, class and modesty while excelling in her craft. Other denizens of the bright lights and big stages might study her style to achieve real success.

By Patricia McGuire  |  January 21, 2010; 12:02 AM ET  | Category:  giving Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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