Global Citizen Keeps Eye on Prize Despite Pandemic Challenges

Cynthia Littleton
·6 min read

The international advocacy org Global Citizen had big plans this year for campaigns to advance its agenda of ending extreme poverty by 2030. And then the pandemic struck.

Hugh Evans, co-founder and CEO of Global Citizen, worried as the coronavirus lockdown took hold that the whole year would be “lost” for elaborate fundraising and awareness efforts that were long in the works. He was wrong.

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“I honestly thought our entire year was going to crumble,” Evans told Variety. “Now we are seeing that it’s been the biggest year ever for Global Citizen.”

In the end, Global Citizen had to put some projects on hold, but other worthy endeavors came together organically out of the immense need and hardship created by the public health crisis. NBC will give the organization a big platform on Dec. 19 when it airs the Global Citizen Prize Awards, hosted by John Legend.

The hourlong special will fete Warren Buffett, Elton John, the three co-founders of Black Lives Matter — Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi — civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, “Sesame Street” producer Sesame Workshop and others. Legend, Carrie Underwood, Gwen Stefani, Alessia Cara and Common are among the artists set to perform. Presenters will include Oprah Winfrey, John Oliver, Katie Couric, Miley Cyrus and Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Nick Jonas.

The starry NBC telecast reflects Global Citizen’s focus of engaging boldface names to help put a spotlight on the organization’s effort to highlight the social ills fueled by poverty, from the lack of access to health care, education and business opportunities to the struggle to find food, clean water and other basic human needs.

Evans, a native of Australia, co-founded the non-profit organization in 2008. Today, Global Citizen has about 130 full time employees and offices in New York, London, Toronto and Johannesburg. Global Citizen had hosted the live Global Citizen Festival event annually in New York’s Central Park since 2012. The 2020 edition was to be the biggest yet, and the plan was to do seven more in cities around the world — until COVID-19 brought the curtain down on such gatherings.

Katie Hill, VP of artist relations and music partnerships for Global Citizen, said the support of notable figures with large social media followings has been invaluable during the disruption caused by the pandemic.

John Legend has been with us since the very beginning,” Hill said of the Global Citizen Prize Awards host. “He traveled all the way to Perth, Australia for our first event in 2011 to fight polio and nearly 10 years later, he is still just as dedicated to the mission.”

As the severity of the pandemic became clear, Evans was convinced that the ambitious goal of ending extreme poverty would have to be pushed back at least two years. But then he got a call from Chris Martin, frontman of Coldplay and a longtime supporter of Global Citizen. Martin wanted the org’s help to arrange a livestream of a performance he wanted to put on to raise money to purchase PPE supplies for health care workers. Martin’s performance from his bedroom led to the “One World: Together at Home” series of livestream music events. The effort culminated in the TV concert special toplined by Lady Gaga that aired April 18 on ABC, CBS, NBC and a host of other networks.

From Martin’s modest effort, “we ended up creating 143 separate concerts in a matter of two months,” Evans said. The TV special alone generated more than $127 million. More than 90% of that money has already been disbursed to a wide range of frontline workers and related orgs.

It’s crazy to think that all of this happened within four months,” said Hill. “It’s been truly inspiring to see so many artists come together, more motivated than ever, to use their platforms to make an impact when the world needs it most.”

Even as the pandemic created immediate and enormous problems, Global Citizen was able to salvage plans for campaigns including #EveryVoteCounts, a nonpartisan effort to encourage young adults in the U.S. to register and go to the polls. That led to the Oct. 29 CBS special of the same name hosted by Kerry Washington, America Ferrera and Alicia Keys.

Global Citizen also took a big stand with the “Global Goal: Unite for Our Future” initiative that pressed the world’s largest nations to commit big bucks to fund COVID-19 tests, treatment and vaccines. The effort raised a total of $1.5 billion in cash and $4.9 billion in loans and guarantees from 41 countries. (The U.S. was the single-largest donor with $500 million.)

Chris Stadler, chairman of the Global Citizen board and a managing partner of CVC Capital Markets, credits Evans’ leadership for keeping the organization busy at a moment when it could have easily gone very quiet.

“In my day job on the business side I’ve watched a lot of companies deal with changes wrought by COVID. I’ve seen no organization do a better job of seeing the changing landscape and taking advantage of it to broaden their impact,” Stadler said. “Hugh has been a fantastic leader and he’s built a great team. We have a robust foundation that gives us the ability to mobilize citizens and get the attention of [world] leaders.”

Global Citizen is stepping up its #GiveWhileYouLive campaign to encourage the world’s billionaires to commit a portion of their wealth to worthy causes now rather than waiting until after they die. Berkshire Hathaway’s Buffett and Chuck Feeney, founder of retail chain Duty Free Shoppers, are among those that have pledged to do so. Noting that about 450 billionaires in the U.S. have gained wealth during the pandemic, Stadler hints that there is plenty of work to do on #GiveWhileYouLive.

“We’ve taken this opportunity to double down on our efforts,” Stadler said. “We’re continuing to push people who are younger and newer to this kind of wealth.”

Evans notes that the pandemic conditions have made Global Citizen’s core mission of eradicating poverty that much more of an uphill battle. As many as 150 million more people around the world are facing extreme hardship as a result of the economic devastation. And that makes Global Citizen’s work even more urgent, in Evans’ view.

“For all intents and purposes, we will have lost two years of progress on sustainable development goals, climate change, food insecurity,” said Evans. “It’s the triple-whammy of challenges right now.”

(Pictured: Hugh Evans at the 2019 Global Citizen Prize event)

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