Talent for Philanthropy: A Look Inside the UTA Foundation

REne Jones, UTA chief of social impact and Founder of UTA Foundation.

While there is plenty of uncertainty in Hollywood these days with an ongoing writers’ and actors’ strike, the “Big 3” agencies — Creative Artists Association (CAA), William Morris Endeavor (WME), and United Talent Agency (UTA) — still loom large in Tinseltown. Like their celebrity clients across film and television, media and sports, these Hollywood institutions have unique resources they can bring to bear in their giving — including those very same star clients and their fans.

Earlier this year, I headed over to Century City in West L.A. to find out about CAA Foundation, the first philanthropic arm of a major Hollywood talent agency, founded in 1995. But two miles east, UTA also has been engaged in philanthropy for years. Established in 2004, UTA Foundation seeks to raise awareness around social issues, provide resources to nonprofits and implement programs for the social good. UTA also taps the star power of its world-famous clients through the years, who include Timothee Chalamet, Francis McDormand, Will Ferrell, Ali Wong, Post Malone, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Issa Rae.

I recently took a trip over to UTA’s famous campus in Beverly Hills to catch up with Rene Jones, partner and chief of social impact at UTA, who helped establish UTA Foundation nearly two decades ago. During our conversation, I found out more about how the charity works, some of its most recent initiatives and partnerships, what some of its clients are getting excited about philanthropically, and how UTA Foundation works to galvanize the entertainment community for social impact.

A Hollywood debut

Jones got her start in philanthropy and social impact right out of college working for AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps' Summer of Service. That gave her the opportunity to venture firsthand into communities across the country. But she also started to realize that without proper funding, a program like Summer of Service could not survive. She soon pivoted to politics, working in the U.S. Senate, before moving to the nonprofit sector. She worked for an organization called DoSomething.org, which aimed to get young people involved in their communities. It was founded in 1993 by actor Andrew Shue, Elisabeth Shue’s brother, best known for playing Billy Campbell on the television series “Melrose Place.” That’s when Jones started seriously thinking about the power of someone with an individual platform using it for change.

When Jones moved to Los Angeles and joined UTA in 2004, she quickly asked leadership about leveraging the agency’s unique assets for social impact. Jones says the response was extremely positive and notes that she was the fourth non-agent executive hire.

“The fact that they really invested in this role was really special. And it really gave me the freedom to build out our blueprint of what impact could mean at the agency,” Jones said. “Building something from the ground up has been really rewarding. Our company at the time was a lot smaller. Los Angeles was our only office. To not only build the foundation, but also the culture here at UTA has is something I'm really proud of.”

UTA now boasts 2,000 employees across six offices including in Atlanta, New York, Nashville and London. But back in those early days, UTA Foundation made a point of building hometown relationships with the the Los Angeles Unified District, including by creating a mentoring program with University High, a Title I high school. Jones said it was a great chance to engage UTA agents and students to give back through a year-round mentorship program. This focus on career readiness and creating a pipeline of talent — not just for careers in the entertainment industry, but for the professional world at large — is still a UTA Foundation cornerstone.

Catalyzing employee giving

UTA Foundation’s programs aren’t, for the most part, too out of the ordinary in the realm of corporate philanthropy, especially given their focus on exercising the charitable muscles of UTA employees. For instance, there’s the global volunteer program Project Impact, a flagship annual effort which just completed its 11th event. Once a year, United Talent Agency shuts down all of its offices for a day of community service and philanthropic spirit. This year, 1,500 employees (around 75% participation) accumulated 4,000 hours of service and worked with over 60 organizations.

While it’s only a one-day event, Jones spoke about its ability to catalyze long-term and sustained philanthropy. UTA President David Kramer, for instance, got involved with Project Angel Food through the program and has now been actively working with the organization, including as a member of its board. “Our hope is that it’s not just one day but that it gives exposure to employees across all of our offices to really give back,” Jones said, adding that every part of the agency participates, from the mailroom to the boardroom. Project Impact focuses on youth and mentoring, climate and sustainability, as well civics and democracy.

Live Inspired, another program, starts with a call to all employees, who apply for a “charitable sabbatical.” This means that for a week, an employee can do something around a specific cause or issue, which UTA Foundation then supports with a grant to a nonprofit. In the past, talent agent Jonathan Beckerman, who grew up in Parkland, Florida, and went to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — the site of the infamous mass shooting — worked with Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action, where he has become an active member. Beckerman has taken other Live Inspired alumni to work with those two organizations.

UTA Coordinator Isaiah Telewoda, meanwhile, went back to his family in Liberia to work with an orphanage, reconnecting with his home community and giving back. “It's changed him. He will say that is one of the most meaningful opportunities that he's had. And it's all because of this program,” Jones said.

The power of storytelling and celebrity clients

One of the more interesting trends in philanthropy, and particularly relevant in the world of entertainment and media philanthropy, is the idea of narrative change — which can often involve using narrative and documentary film, podcasts, music and other forms of art and media to raise awareness about social issues. As the philanthropic arm of a company founded on the basis of storytelling, and as a writer’s agency, Jones said, UTA Foundation is diving in.

The foundation has partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences to bring together writers and content creators around climate issues and awareness in their storytelling. The effort will begin this fall in New York with later plans to spread to L.A., Jones said. UTA’s marketing group also partnered with Netflix and corporate client General Motors so that every Netflix production would only use electric vehicles during production.

Many of UTA’s clients are also philanthropically active, and UTA Foundation sees its role as a “thought partner” that can provide additional guidance. Narrative change is a theme. Actor client Wilmer Valderrama (best known for his role as Fez in “That ‘70s Show”) cofounded Harness, which “educates, inspires and activates a community of cultural organizers to use the power of storytelling to imagine and create a more equitable world.” Journalist client Jose Antonio Vargas, meanwhile, established Define American to use storytelling to change the narrative on immigration.

Jones sees her celebrity clients making impact in many ways. “It’s all unique to them, you know? Sometimes you’ll have people who may be active in some ways and then all of a sudden, something happens, and they become an activist,” Jones said. A good example of this is actor Liev Schreiber, who has become a committed activist for Ukraine of late, using his platform to provide additional resources for organizations working on the ground in the war-torn country. Schreiber launched BlueCheck Ukraine, which identifies, vets and fast-tracks urgent financial support to Ukrainian NGOs and aid initiatives.

As another example, Jones mentioned legendary actor Michael J. Fox, represented by UTA, who has been one of the defining Hollywood philanthropists of his generation through his work on Parkinson’s disease, including through the Michael J. Fox Foundation. “They’ve raised over a billion dollars. And they recently identified a new marker [for Parkinson’s],” Jones said.

On the horizon

Overall, Jones believes that entertainment philanthropy is at its best when celebrities and the agencies come together to rally around an issue. She mentioned Stand Up to Cancer, whose founders include Katie Couric, as a good example of this work of uniting around an issue and raising critical funds. She mentioned similar examples across other causes, from mental health and climate change to gun safety. She also talked about safety in numbers: When more celebrities step up together, opportunity for real dialogue opens up.

Looking ahead, Jones said UTA Foundation will remain laser-focused on looking for innovative and high-profile opportunities to shine a spotlight on important causes. This past May, for example, for Mental Health Awareness Month, UTA Foundation’s campus hosted Hollywood & Mind to bring in the entertainment community and have raw conversations about mental health. “It really allowed people to be open, to help break stigma, and all that comes with mental health,” Jones said.

Proud of how far the mental health conversation has come in five years, Jones is looking forward to hosting the event again next year, adding: “How can we identify a pressing issue? How can we bring in our employees? How can we bring in our talent to really push it forward? We’re just always trying to identify those opportunities.”