We recently spoke with actress Serinda Swan (Tron:Legacy, Graceland) about her charity practices, thoughts on year-end giving, and whether she trusts celebrity endorsements of organizations.
We met Serinda a few years back when we coordinated her trip to visit Heifer and Somaly Mam Foundation’s work in Cambodia. Serinda went on to create a skydiving crowd funded campaign, 18 for 18, to benefit Somaly Mam’s fight to end human trafficking. 18 for 18 has raised over $250,000 in just over 2 years with over 20 million online impressions. You can view a video of the campaign below.
CEA: We just entered into a new year. Do you make a practice of year end giving? The idea of giving before the tax year is up?
I do make sure to incorporate giving back into my holiday shopping, whether it is a donation in someone’s name or an amazing product that has a tangible give-back, but I try to make my giving more of a year-round thing than concentrated just at the end. Still, it is a great way for people to start getting into the philanthropic world because it is helping all around. It’s helping you with your taxes and it’s helping the people that need it.
CEA: How do you tend to find the causes to which you connect?
If I don’t know about an issue or a cause I’ll immerse myself and read up on it until I feel that I know what’s going on. I’m a bit of an autodidact like that. It’s really about just staying aware of what’s happening in the world. I love RYOT News because of that. It’s probably one of my favorite places to get my news because you get the stories, but then you also get how you can help. Nowadays I feel that the news almost creates helplessness because it is this barrage of negativity. You may see an argument between two professionals or between two experts on what’s right and what’s wrong, but it’s never really how to help or a way you can get involved with the situation.
So it’s good if you can find organizations like RYOT or you can find things online that have a direct link on how you can help the cause that you’re watching. I think socially we should start moving towards that. Even the smallest things will help. I know with 18 for 18 [Serinda’s annual crowdsourcing fundraiser to benefit Somaly Mam Foundation] we have $2, $4, $5 donations coming in, which may seem small but on such a large scale that’s becoming hundreds of thousands of dollars. And again, we always say a donation is not just monetary. It’s a tweet, it’s a re-tweet, it’s a text, it’s a Facebook post, it’s a conversation at your next dinner with friends. Some of the most important people in my life are people I consider to be information donors. I sit down for a coffee with them and they just donate this wealth of knowledge. It’s invaluable.
CEA: You said earlier you’re an autodidact and you like to really dig in and read and fully understand for yourself. Do you think there is enough critical thinking amongst givers around charity in that way? How important do you think it is to really suss out an organization?
I think it’s extremely important to make sure that the money you donate is going to a reputable cause, but its not something that you need to spend hours on. You can find amazing ones through sources like CNN Heroes, the UN, or even by asking some of your friends which ones they support.
The more I am immersed in the philanthropic world, a subject or cause, it just happens. I want to know more. But there are people who don’t have time to study and dig deep into these charities. There are people that just go, “Oh dogs? Yeah, I like dogs. Here, have $100.” I love those people too!
What we need to do is find a better way to rate charities that are out there. There are so many non-profit organizations that it’s getting to a point where people don’t know who to give to. They’re hearing these stories of CEOs, and private jets, and getting dejected by it. But that’s just an extremely small portion of the charities. If we can figure out a way to just regulate it a little more and have blogs like this, where you say, “Look we’ve done all the work for you, we’ve hired our own little team of autodidacts that have read everything that needs to be known about these charities, and these are the ones that you can look at and feel safe donating to.” We can save people a lot of confusion that way. It’s actually something that I’m trying to build with Friends To Mankind.
CEA: Would you take a celebrity’s stamp of approval as a way to trust that an organization is legit? Does it mean something to you when you see a certain name?
Yes, absolutely. If it’s somebody that I trust, then yes. Usually there’s such a well-oiled machine behind most celebrities, and for them to be attached to a charity or an organization that has some kind of negative connotation or has some sort of wrongful distribution when it comes to their donations, that reflects very poorly. I feel like the team that is behind the celebrity would do their due diligence and figure out exactly who, what, where, why, when, and how much is actually going back to the cause.
So one good way to find charities through your favorite celebrity is to look up their philanthropic involvement and see if there are any videos from interviews they’ve done. You’re winning in both ways, you get to see the celebrity that you really like, and you also get to be educated on something that’s happening in the world and something that they care about.
CEA: Because of your experience with 18 for 18, I wanted to ask you about how organizations engage with young people. In the organizations that you’ve worked with, do you find they are prepared to engage young supporters?
I feel the majority of the people engaged with the charities I work with are young people. You look at things happening with Invisible Children, Fortuned Culture, Falling Whistles, there are so many organizations that are just blowing things up. Pencils of Promise is another amazing one. So is LSTN which is giving a free pair of hearing aids for every pair of headphones sold through the Starkey Foundation. These are all very young people making monumental changes. There is a new army of world changers being built and I’m excited to see what we can make happen in our lifetime.
CEA: Starkey Foundation put hearing aids in child soldiers at the school in Uganda, Hope North, that we support.
It’s unbelievable. You find foundations like Starkey and they’re not just doing their own thing, they’re now partnering with other organizations, spreading their reach of aid all over the world.
CEA: What has changed?
I think we want our planet back. Because of how the internet works, in so many wonderful ways we are becoming more and more aware. Twitter. Everything is viral now. Something happens and it’s, “Hey, did you hear so-and-so did this?” or “Hey did you know there was an earthquake there?” We know. The world is now becoming informed within 24 hours of something happening, if not within 24 minutes, or 24 seconds.
It’s not to say our parents or grandparents didn’t care, it’s saying we have access to this information that I hope doesn’t give us a choice not to care. It should be ingrained within our being, to love and to want to help to be a friend to mankind.
That’s why I bring it back to RYOT and resources like that where you are able to make sure that with the knowledge you receive, you also get the power to change things. It’s not going to be my generation that’s going to walk in and change it. We are going to be the ones that open the doors, let the floodgates open so that the next generation can take their army and change this world. And I want to be a part of that. It’s the generation that we are educating, it’s the generation we are freeing from slavery, and it’s the generation we are taking out of being child soldiers. They’re the ones that are going to change things.
CEA: One cause that seems to have really become a part of the public consciousness in the last 10 years, and I know it’s very important to you, is human trafficking. Would you say that is a factor in why people are suddenly talking about this?
Absolutely. We are now starting to get the facts of what’s really going on. It’s actually the second largest criminal enterprise in the world, just under drug trafficking which is now estimated to bring in $30 billion a year. Also, you now have somebody like Nick Kristof who is live tweeting while he’s breaking down the door of a brothel in Cambodia. At that very moment you could be driving to work or getting a coffee, and it makes you realize that your freedoms are not the same as others. He suddenly brought this awareness to you. To your life. And once you learn it you can’t unlearn it. It’s something you’ve seen now and hopefully you act.
William Wilberforce once said, “You may choose to look the other away, but you can never again say that you did not know.”