'American Idol' Gives Back to His Community

Ruben Studdard, the soulful singer who won the second American Idol competition last May, is giving back to the place it all started: Birmingham, Alabama. His giving vehicle of choice, a donor advised fund at his local community foundation, underscores the benefits of using this flexible tool to conduct high-impact philanthropy.

Within weeks of collecting 12 million votes and a $1 million recording contract on the Fox television series, he set up the donor advised fund and named it the Ruben Studdard Foundation for the Advancement of Children and the Arts. “The Velvet Teddy Bear,” as R&B legend Gladys Knight called him, kicked off his philanthropy with a $20,000 gift before the school year started and plans more contributions to local schools and other education organizations.

Development officer Jim King said that Studdard chose to work with The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham to help him set up and administer his donor advised fund after learning that many other top entertainers and athletes had chosen that route. For example, the late Peanuts comic strip creator Charles M. Schulz and his wife set up a number of funds at the Community Foundation of Sonoma Valley, which now supports—among other charities—a program that trains dogs to help the disabled. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Community Foundation hosts donor advised funds for a number of well-known figures, including tennis star Pam Shriver and Ravens football players Adalius Thomas and Ed Reed. Famed Celtics coach Red Auerbach opened a fund at The Boston Foundation in 1983.

Donor advised funds have given these marquee celebrities the chance to set aside large sums of money earned in one year in a single giving vehicle. They have the flexibility to recommend grants of these funds over several years, all with a greater tax break than they would have received had they opted to create private foundations.

Like other celebrities with a busy lifestyle and the urge to give, Studdard decided on a donor advised fund because it keeps administrative costs and responsibilities to a minimum. “His initial inclination was to establish an independent private foundation,” said King. “But here’s a young star with a crazy schedule.” The donor advised fund provides Studdard with a convenient, easy way to manage his philanthropy. Equally important: the donor advised fund enables Studdard to give with as much publicity or privacy as he wants.

Studdard has strong roots in his community. Born in Germany where his father was stationed in the military, he soon moved with his mother to metropolitan Birmingham, where he has lived most of his life. The young Ruben dreamed of becoming an opera star, but his training was thoroughly gospel: at the age of three, he joined the Cherub Choir of his hometown Rising Star Baptist Church. Football competed for his attention in high school, but his voice won out, and he pursued a major in music education for three-and-a-half years at Alabama A&M University. Then, in 2000, he stopped attending classes and gave himself five years to make it as a singer.

He saw the first American Idol on television. “I thought it was kind of cheesy,” the 25-year-old recently told the Los Angeles Times. But that didn’t stop him from traveling to Nashville to try out for the second season.

As his silken renditions of songs like Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” propelled him from one episode to the next, Studdard became a cult figure in Birmingham, where he had already been performing in local clubs. A local realtor organized a group of real estate brokers who pledged to vote for Studdard by telephone as many times as possible during each show. His ubiquitous jersey with the numbers 205 taught millions of viewers Birmingham’s area code. Once crowned, Studdard went on to put out a top-selling CD and earn a Grammy nomination.

Staying true to his roots, Studdard plans to do something special with his donor advised fund: use the caché of his name to attract donations from other individuals, while getting help from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham to ensure the contributions go to legitimate, worthwhile causes that benefit the community. All of which shows that Studdard, who just bought a condominium in town, hasn’t let fame carry him away. “I’m from Alabama,” he told Jet magazine. “It’s hard for us to get real Hollywood. If you are who you say you are and you’re real, it should be hard to change your personality overnight.”

Matthew Schuerman is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.
Copyright CFA, 2004
Used with permission

Caroline Heine

Posted at 1:00 AM, Jan 08, 2009 in Arts and Culture | Ethnic/Social Diversities | Intergenerational | Philanthropic Strategy | Permalink