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Cause celebre: Celebrities and their causes

Star power helps some causes, hurts others

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There are so many celebrities involved with so many causes that a Web site, www.celebcauses.com, cross-references them. Here are some of the best known.

Jerry Lewis: Muscular dystrophy

Bono: Third-world debt, famine

Elton John: AIDS

Doris Day: Animals

Jay-Z: Education

Oprah Winfrey: A variety of causes through her Angel Network

Denis Leary: Firefighters

Christopher Reeve: Spinal cord injuries

Paul Newman: A variety of causes funded by his Newman's Own products

Michael J. Fox: Parkinson's disease

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United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
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Celebrities

(CNN) -- Refugees. Underprivileged children. Soldiers. Breast cancer. AIDS. Animal cruelty. Multiple sclerosis. Famine. Homelessness.

Examine an issue, and there's likely a celebrity connected with it.

They have their reasons. Some have been personally affected by their causes: think Neil Young, who has two children with cerebral palsy, with the Bridge School he and his wife founded; or Michael J. Fox with Parkinson's disease.

Others want to get involved and give something back to society, as with Paul Newman's Newman's Own food empire, which has raised $200 million for a variety of causes.

But others may be contributing for less altruistic reasons: a tax write-off, a way to promote a project.

For those who give, it's not always an easy task. Lisa Szarkowski, spokesman for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, said that becoming a goodwill ambassador for the children's and women's assistance organization is a rigorous commitment that includes fund-raising, media appearances and a "large education process."

"When folks go on a trip, it's not exactly a vacation," she said, noting that journeys are often to poor or disaster-stricken places. "It's arduous. The accommodations aren't luxurious. There are lots of meetings and lots of interaction with children, as well as media appearances. ... [And] it's emotionally draining to witness extreme poverty and dire circumstances."

But for those who participate, she added, it's well worth it.

"By and large, people are extremely committed. They put the mission first," she said, praising the contributions of Danny Kaye -- UNICEF's first celebrity goodwill ambassador -- Audrey Hepburn, Mia Farrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Laurence Fishburne and Lucy Liu. "You don't read about their donations, or the way they rally workers to boost morale." (Gallery: Stars shine for the U.N.)

Actress Angelina Jolie, who is a United Nations Refugee Agency goodwill ambassador, says the feeling goes both ways. (Watch Jolie talk about what inspires her -- 6:31)

"I am so inspired by these people," she told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "You think, Jesus, the things these people go through, I owe it to all of them to get myself together and stop whining about being tired and get there and get focused, because -- God -- it's the least I can do with what they live with."

Want coverage? Get a glamorous name

Jennifer Howell, who created The Art of Elysiumexternal link, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that brings artists and performers to children's hospitals for workshops, said the celebrities who work with her group "roll up their sleeves and really participate." The artists' workshops serve as distraction therapy for children who often are afflicted with chronic or terminal illness.

Celebrity status often doesn't matter to the children, she adds. "What matters is that an inspiring person is sharing time with them."

But celebrity status does help expose a charity to the wider world. The news media is complicit in this: If you want attention, get a name; if you want coverage, get a glamorous name.

"I do wish people would say 'What an amazing cause,' but celebrities who are willing to put their reputations on the line are extremely powerful," Howell says. "To be able to get national exposure -- it's an amazing tool we're so grateful to have."

However, our society's reliance on celebrity shouldn't always be celebrated, says Rachel Weingarten, a New York-based publicist and event organizer who heads GTK Marketing Groupexternal link. She's discouraged by what she calls "the Hollywoodization of doing good," in which a name is required to get attention for the cause.

"I have real issues with the fact that people with great ideas, who do good things -- if they don't have a [celebrity] name attached, they get lost," she said.

What's worse, she added, is when the celebrity factor overwhelms the cause. She mentions one event she worked on in which the charity had hoped to benefit several hundred children. In the end, because of overhead for celebrity demands, the money raised only supported one-tenth that many.

Coolio 'changed lives that day'

Weingarten builds a charitable component into every event she oversees, which has included promotions during Oscar season and New York's Fashion Week.

Some celebrities aren't necessarily committed to the causes they're working for, she said: "You have the celebrities who have to be coerced. Their agent or manager says they have to get a good cause [for publicity reasons].

"Then there is someone with a tarnished image, shining it up as a do-gooder," she added, saying she believes Jolie falls into that camp. "To me it feels very fake."

But still, she said, there are rewards. She's worked with many people who bring passion and energy to their causes -- and are genuinely influential, even if they may not be aware of it.

At one event she handled, the rapper Coolio performed for foster children. Weingarten was impressed by Coolio's show, in which he exhorted the children to achieve. "He wanted to be there to inspire kids," Weingarten said. "I actually believe he changed lives that day."

And sometimes a celebrity name can make a huge difference. Late last year actor Joaquin Phoenix, who is active with The Art of Elysium, participated in an event for the organization. The money raised allowed Howell, who was essentially a one-person organization to that point, to hire three staffers.

What finally makes a difference, she said, is getting involved.

"What's important is the human connection," Howell said. "In that interaction, the miracles happen."

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