“The days of red carpet philanthropy are largely over,” says Trevor Neilson, 40, on a sunny Friday afternoon. It’s a surprising thing to hear from the co-founder of Global Philanthropy Group, a company based in Los Angeles that has become known for advising celebrities such as Madonna, Bono and Shakira on their philanthropic activities.
“That’s not to say there won’t be events,” Neilson continues. “But a lot of people make the mistake of thinking the gala itself is philanthropy. We develop much more sophisticated, permanent strategies; it’s not a one-night stand.”
Neilson, handsome, fit and dark-featured, has been up since 5:30 a.m. On a usual weekday, in the early morning hours, he can be spotted paddling on his surfboard in the ocean near his Pacific Palisades home, and then making lunch for his seven- and four-year-old daughters.
“I was lucky to have married Maggie. She and I have a similar set of values,” he says, pointing out that they both grew up in the Seattle area. Maggie was a technology executive at Amazon.com before becoming CEO and co-founder of Global Philanthropy. Since 2007, they have built an increasingly influential roster of clients comprised mostly of high-net-worth individuals, including Howard Buffett, son of Warren, and companies such as Bulgari and Kiehl’s. Celebrities, while attracting the bulk of the press coverage, make up just a quarter of the enterprise.
Even so, this husband-and-wife team has devised strategies for many famous faces, including Demi Moore, Ben Stiller and Tory Burch. And these campaigns can take on many forms, with some celebrities, most of whom typically hear about GPG through word of mouth, approaching the Neilsons with ideas already in mind; at other times they are given a blank slate from which to craft an initial strategy. The process can take months, but regardless of the plan, Global Philanthropy researches the issues, performs due diligence about the charities and provides analytic tools to measure the actual impact made.
The Neilsons have learned from their clients as well. “Shakira is crazy smart,” Maggie says. “She’s able to assess an education issue from a macro level to knowing the names of the kids in the schools she funds.”
Similarly, longtime client John Legend often does his own research about domestic educational reform. “He’ll give us very insightful notes or recommendations,” she says. “Also, celebrities particularly will not do something that’s not authentic to them. Every day celebs will turn down some of our ideas because they’ll say, ‘It’s just not me.’” “Maggie has been the person who has taken the big idea and turned them into a successful business,” Trevor says.
Indeed, as more eyes are on Global Philanthropy, Trevor Neilson has inadvertently become the face of the company. “I think it may be because I’m more vocal at meetings and conferences,” he speculates. But it’s not a role he’s necessarily comfortable with, or one he envisioned when he was growing up in Seattle. “There’s nothing flashy about Seattle and especially South Seattle, where I grew up,” he says. “It was before the technology boom, and it was a place of middle-class families who cared about their communities. It grounded me, and that has been very helpful for me in working with a diverse group of people, whether they may be philanthropists, billionaires, celebrities or government leaders.”
No stranger to diversity—he grew up the oldest of three brothers and two sisters, all adopted from Korea—Neilson credits his parents, who still live in Seattle, with giving him an early sense of what it meant to make a difference. “They taught me that each individual can make the world a better place by taking certain actions.” Even so, when he headed to Washington State University, he studied literature and had plans to enter politics. In fact, he ran for student body president at his alma mater and lost. His vice-presidential running mate would eventually introduce him to Maggie several years later. “That was the one good thing that came out of my campaign,” he says with a laugh.
After graduating in 1994, Neilson landed a coveted internship at the White House under the Clinton administration and was later hired to coordinate travel for the president. From there, he held several positions in nonprofit organizations before returning to Seattle to work for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“I learned about philanthropy from the smartest philanthropists in the world,” he raves. “There were two big things that Bill and Melinda forever changed: the notion that you should wait until you’re old to engage in philanthropy, and to engage Americans philanthropists on global health issues.” It was there that he first worked with Bono on the charity that would eventually become the ONE campaign. “Celebrities have the ability to bring a tremendous amount of attention to an issue,” he says. Not surprisingly, it’s a lesson he’s capitalized on in growing Global Philanthropy.
But these days, Neilson sees potential not in Hollywood but in South Florida. He spoke at the American Express Luxury Summit conference in Palm Beach earlier this year about luxury brands building deeper customer relationships through philanthropy and returns regularly to Wellington, where he is a co-owner of Gracida Polo. “Miami, Bal Harbour, Wellington and Palm Beach have business leaders, the equestrian community, athletes and artists,” he says. “It’s a wonderful combination.”
Consequently, Global Philanthropy is looking to open an office in the area. “It’s about engaging a new generation of philanthropists,” Neilson says. “And if they in turn make a huge impact in the world, well, that’s success.”