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April 2003
The New Face of Philanthropy
By Britt Collins


There is a surge of trust fund rebels dismantling the perception that rich kids slum around swimming pools and squander their money on drugs. These days, many activists come from affluent families, go to private schools and have clean hair.

Disillusioned with the state of the world and the greed and invasiveness of globalization, a number of well-off young people are quietly using their wealth and connections to inspire change. And they’re not just cool monied rock stars and Hollywood chicks, like Moby and Alicia Silverstone, whose youthful largess benefits a variety of green causes. Nor are they all from anti-corporate globalization author Naomi Klein’s thirty-something “Generation-X” contingent. These kids are younger and their wealth is usually inherited. And this is one of the few times in history where change is filtering up rather than down through the class system.

Young Americans
The “cool rich kids movement,” as it is known, is taking off in America. Founded by William Upski Wimsatt, a 29 year-old writer and graffiti artist who believes that philanthropy will be the new art form of the 21st century, the movement encourages young people to work for radical social change. Being rich, Wimsatt says, is not all it’s cracked up to be. “I didn’t want to end up being some pimp covered in Gucci, floating around in limos and doing drugs.” Instead, he “hooks up grassroots campaigns with forward-thinking rich kids,” like two of Sarah Lee’s grandchildren, the inheritors of her frozen foods company, who regularly give a fortune away to social causes. Wimsatt, a spirited college drop-out, has co-founded three organizations and claims that “there are five million millionaires in the U.S. and you can’t believe how many kick-ass activists there are until you start digging.” He is currently working on a “Fortune 500” book, “a directory of young people changing the world.”

Sherry DeBoer, heiress to Long’s drugstore chain on the West Coast, traded in Hollywood for activism. The former actress and party girl couldn’t be further away from the LA party circuit. “I had nothing to show for the years dating and looking pretty. It was an empty, wasted life. The real joy is in giving.” She became a political lobbyist and helped get California’s Proposition 6 passed, banning the commercial sale of horses for human consumption, in addition to establishing a bill for the humane treatment of pet-store puppies and kittens. In 1990, DeBoer founded the Animal Health and Safety Association, which lobbies for humane legislative reform at the state level, and founded Political Animals, a political action committee for animal advocacy in California.

“Like other animal protection people,” DeBoer says, “I entered [the political] arena with the assumption that moral correctness has power.” She soon discovered that the primary motivation of politicians is, by necessity, their own re-election. “Legislators are powerless to help you if it will result in their defeat at the polls,” she says. And to be effective, you have to play the game. Simply put, activists who want to help the animals have got to learn the ropes, do the research, and be professional. “The legislature is no place for amateurs,” DeBoer advises, “no matter how enthusiastic or well-intentioned.”

Another cool rich kid, Karen Pittelman, a 28 year-old poet and social activist, gave away the lion’s share of her $3 million inheritance to start the Chahara Foundation (, which gives grants of up to $20,000 to Boston-based organizations working with or run by lower-income women. Dismissed by her family as a “crazy communist,” her decision to give away her inheritance was rooted in a desire to use that money towards “a radical redistribution of wealth.” “Everyone thought I lost my mind,” she says. “When I was younger, I wanted to wash my hands of all the money, pretend I had never even known it existed. That was guilt. But guilt is just inertia, just indulgence. It accomplishes nothing.”

“Guilt and denial are often overriding and even paralyzing emotions among many young people with access to wealth,” explains Wimsatt, who first used the ‘cool rich kids’ phrase in his book No More Prisons (Soft Skull Press) and gave away half of his 2001 income to social-change philanthropy. “Some of the best candidates for the movement have spent their entire lives pretending they’re not rich.”

Young philanthropy is nothing new, however. Twenty years ago, John Robbins, heir of the Baskin Robbins ice cream empire, author, filmmaker and animal-rights campaigner, walked away from the wealthy lifestyle of his family and their “ice cream cone-shaped swimming pool” to educate Americans about the inhumane conditions of modern meat production and to live a compassionate lifestyle. He has written several books, including the bestseller Diet for a New America, in which he presents his theories about how an animal-based diet is killing Americans.

Cool Brit Kids
Across the pond in the UK, the cool rich kids movement is much smaller, but there is a flourishing new wave of aristocrats championing green causes.

Using their influence and glamour, Britain’s golden boy environmentalist Zac Goldsmith and his sister Jemima Khan, who works with Unicef and the World Society for the Protection of Animals, are cultivating the hothouse climate that is allowing the green renaissance to thrive.

The Ecologist’s 29 year-old editor Zac is a dedicated activist. “For anybody who is both wealthy and socially concerned, there is some contradiction in our lives,” he admits. He says he’s “not interested in money” but he “can’t stand by and watch the world fall apart.” As editor of The Ecologist, the world’s longest-running environmental magazine, Zac is often caught in the crossfire of controversy. The most recent issue features the coverline: “Eat shit or die: America gives Africa a choice,” which is a vitriolic attack on U.S. foreign policy. But while the magazine is well-regarded, Zac’s own green credentials are sometimes called into questioned, not least of all because he fills that well-worn cliché of the meat-eating environmentalist.

Jemima Khan, christened by the British media as the ‘new Princess Diana,’ has become even more prolific, from rescuing baby bear cubs from being baited with dogs to raising money for Afghan refugees. After reading an article that described children “dying of cold in the refugee camps,” Jemima went to Afghanistan and provided tents, blankets and other relief items to 80,000 refugees. “I was horrified by the conditions there,” she says, relating what she saw. “But what I found most upsetting was the desperation among people for shelter. There was one little boy whose parents had died and he had come on his own, dragging this huge tent for miles. And there was another little girl, about nine, looking after her five siblings. It was heartbreaking.”

A former society princess and Vogue cover girl, she runs a small fashion label which helps fund her husband Imran Khan’s cancer hospital in Lahore. Her clothes are an elegant blend of East and West: jewel-bright silks and vivid hand-embroidery adorning slinky dresses and delicate cardigans, handmade by impoverished village women. She already has a dazzling clientele of Hollywood celebs and rock stars, selling in London, Paris and New York.

And the Animals
The scions of the billion-dollar Vestey beef empire, former “It” girl Julia Stephenson and her “eco-warrior” brother Mark Brown, are also part of this new wave of green aristos. Both vegans, Julia stripped down for her beliefs, posing nude in glossy society magazine Tatler to promote animal welfare, while Mark, a committed environmentalist who lives a modest lifestyle, went to court for his involvement in Reclaim the Street’s Carnival Against Capitalism in London, which ended in several million pounds’ worth of damage. “People like us have always been environmentally minded,” says Julia, “but they are sticking their heads up and being counted now. People have woken up to what’s going on. They’re travelling a lot and seeing what’s happening to the world. Even my friends who I thought were skeptical about my interests are now asking questions about it. It’s becoming cool to be vegan—we are the armed guard of the vegetarian contingent.”

Julia Stephenson may be a living stereotype, with a luxurious apartment off of London’s trendy Sloane Square, a trust fund and constant flow of party invitations, but she is all too aware of the irony. “Our economic freedom comes from the very thing I find so hard to stomach: the meat industry. But some good has to come out of this blood money.” A visit to a farm when she was a teenager opened her eyes. “I was expecting to see fields of pigs and chickens roaming in the sunlight. Instead, I was horrified by the reality of the pig house: rows of tiny concrete stalls where sows were shackled to the filthy, metal slatted floor. One young sow was being placed in a stall for the first time. She threw herself against the restraint in a frenzy of panic and deafening squeals. I am still haunted by her cries. It’s sickening, we pretend to be a nation of animal lovers but I’ve realized there’s just as much animal cruelty in the UK as the rest of the world, only here we do it behind closed doors.”

In 2000, she became a Green Party candidate for the Greater London Assembly, mainly, she concedes, so that she could improve animal welfare: “We all want fresh air, pure water, and healthy food. We trust our government to deliver these basic requirements, but it has let us down. I joined the Green Party as it is the only party with the guts to put people, animals and the environment before short-term profits and corporate greed.”

Animal rights activist and vegan Stella McCartney has it written into her contract that she “won’t work with leather or fur” and recently started her own ethical label with Gucci. While her partnering up with fur-using Gucci was seen by many as her defection to the dark side, Stella insists that she is fighting the “sickness of the industry from within.” Shortly after signing up with the label, she starred in a scathing commercial which shows the brutality of animal slaughter and openly attacks fashion labels like Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, and even Gucci for their use of fur and leather.

McCartney regularly clashes with other designers, like Karl Lagerfeld, who claims she lacks credibility because “she’s deeply hypocritical and she’s making both herself and Gucci look ridiculous.” “All the negative stuff doesn’t affect me,” says Stella. “There’d be no point in doing anything if I let it get to me.”

Her sister, fashion photographer Mary McCartney, also a vegan and activist, recently shot Brit-pop diva Sophie Ellis-Bextor for a hotly controversial PETA campaign wearing a sleek black evening gown, holding a dead, skinned fox, with the caption: Here’s the rest of your fur.

This new wave of eco-warriors, however, is not without its critics. Lord Peter Melchett—the former head of Greenpeace who led the group’s high-profile campaign against genetically-engineered foods—is incensed by what he sees as “It” girls and boys glamorizing and trivializing the issues for the sake of “fashion.” Because, he says, “The only things that matter are the issues.”

It’s not about fashion, says Julia Stephenson. Those with trust funds make natural environmentalists. “We have more time and money to find out what’s going on. If you’re on the work treadmill, who has time to read The Ecologist? It’s always been the preserve of the rich and privileged to worry about conservation. The poor are generally more preoccupied with the business of trying to survive.”

Britt Collins
is a freelance journalist and animal rights activist. Her writing has appeared in
Sunday People, Evening Standard, and Vogue. She is currently writing a book on celebrities and animal rights. Britt lives in London with her eight beautiful cats. This is an edited version of an original article published in the May 2002 issue of Green Events (


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