Celebrities who embrace humanitarian causes attract both criticism and praise. Many question whether they’re motivated more by the publicity rather than a genuine concern for humanity. Then there are the tax write-offs to consider. But cynicism aside, some celebrities are so famous they don’t need extra attention. And many do seem to care deeply for their chosen cause, especially those who give generously of their time. Some are even willing to get arrested, although the consequences for a film star are far less devastating than for ordinary citizens. When celebrities do adopt a cause, it’s certainly good news for that particular organization and the needy who will ultimately benefit. These stars have enormous influence and help highlight crucial domestic and international social issues.
Here are 10 celebrities who are very active in humanitarian causes. As with many lists of this type, the rankings are highly subjective, as it’s impossible to rate certain humanitarian causes as more worthy than others.
10. Mia Farrow
Actress Mia Farrow’s most famous film roles date from the 1960s to the mid-1980s, so she’s actually better known to many today as a humanitarian. She serves as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and has been especially active in drawing attention to the genocide in Darfur. She’s also worked to assist victims in the Central African Republic, Chad and Sudan.
9. Ben Affleck
In 2010 Ben Affleck launched the Eastern Congo Initiative to help people affected by war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which the actor referred to as “one of the worst humanitarian tragedies in the world.” He has visited the country several times and in 2008 produced the short film Gimme Shelter which captures the suffering of Congalese people displaced by the war. Affleck intended the film to raise worldwide awareness about the conflict and raise funds for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
8. Demi Moore
Actress Demi Moore is an advocate for victims of human trafficking, the fastest-growing and second-largest criminal enterprise in the world. In 2010, along with ex-husband Ashton Kutcher, Moore launched the Demi and Ashton Foundation (DNA) to help bring an end to child sex slavery and human trafficking. Also in 2010, Moore partnered with CNN Freedom Project for a documentary, Nepal’s Stolen Children, on human trafficking in Nepal.
7. Elton John
Sir Elton John established the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) in 1992 after losing many of his friends to the terrible disease. The non-profit organization aims to prevent HIV and eliminate HIV and AIDS-related discrimination. Since its founding, EJAF has raised over $125 million to support programs in 55 countries worldwide. He has also donated large sums of money to various organizations, and he raised $40 million for charity through sales of his single Candle in the Wind, following the death of Princess Diana.
6. Charlize Theron
South African-born actress Charlize Theron has starred in such hard-hitting movies as Monster and North Country, and in 2008 was appointed messenger of peace for the United Nations, with a special focus on ending violence against women. In 2007 she founded the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project, designed to reduce the spread of AIDS among African youth. In March 2012, Theron was honored for her advocacy work earning the Ally Equality Award at the Human Rights Campaign gala. She has also long campaigned for equal rights for gays and insists she will not marry herself until marriage between same-sex couples is made legal in every state.
5. Angelina Jolie
Angelina Jolie and husband Brad Pitt established The Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation in 2006 to assist with humanitarian crises worldwide. To launch the foundation, the couple donated $1 million to Doctors Without Borders and Global Action for Children. In 2001 Jolie was named a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Goodwill Ambassador, and since then has been on field missions around the world meeting with refugees in more than 20 countries, including Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia. Jolie has become increasingly more active on the political scene, meeting with legislators and speaking out on humanitarian causes. And she has received several awards for her humanitarian efforts, including the Global Humanitarian Award by the United Nations for her work with UNHCR and refugees.
4. George Clooney
Oscar-winning actor George Clooney is well known for his activism and generosity. His latest mission is to stop the genocide occurring in the Darfur region of Sudan, and he founded the organization Not On Our Watch, along with his Ocean’s 11 co-stars, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and producer Jerry Weintraub. Clooney traveled to the Sudanese Nuba Mountains with the ENOUGH Project in 2012, documenting and filming the trip. He also testified before the U.S. Senate Committee and met with President Barack Obama to discuss the atrocities. In March 2012 he was arrested — along with his father — during a peaceful demonstration outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington D.C., drawing further attention to the cause. Clooney, who is on the United Way’s board of trustees, is also known for his generous donations to support the homeless.
3. Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey has donated millions to charities and organizations, in particular The Angel Network, The Oprah Winfrey Foundation, the Oprah Winfrey Operating Foundation, and The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. In addition, Winfrey is a big supporter of the Clinton Foundation, which supports many causes including climate change and treating HIV and AIDS. She is dedicated to supporting educational initiatives and raising awareness of issues that affect women and children in the United States and around the world. Winfrey received an honorary Oscar for her outstanding humanitarian work in 2011. The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award is given periodically for philanthropic efforts.
2. Sean Penn
Outspoken actor and director Sean Penn is well known for his political and social activism, philanthropy, and for stirring controversy. Shortly after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Penn established the J/P Haitian Relief organization, and has been helping relief efforts there ever since. At a Cannes Film Festival event in May 2012 he made an impassioned (and expletive-filled) speech expressing his anger over the fact that people have already forgotten about the situation in Haiti. He earned the 2012 Peace Summit Award for his ongoing humanitarian work in Haiti at the 12th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, accepting the award from former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who was joined onstage by his Holiness the Dalai Lama.
With three Nobel Peace Prize nominations and an honorary knighthood for his humanitarian work (as well as his contribution to music), U2’s lead singer Bono earns our No. 1 spot. He is one of the most influential celebrity activists and a leader in the fight against poverty, hunger and promoting international debt relief. He has met with several world leaders, including former president George W. Bush, discussing foreign aid and poverty issues. He helped create the ONE Campaign, Debt AIDS Trade Africa (DATA), (RED) and EDUN, an organic clothing company with the mission to drive sustainable employment in developing countries. Bono was named the most politically effective celebrity of all time by the National Journal and was on Forbes’ Generous Celebrity List for his humanitarian work worldwide.