The Philosophy of Fandom Charity

Celebrities are using the power of fandom to make a positive impact on the world. Here's how they do it...

Editor’s note: This story appears in Den of Geek’s second print edition exclusive for San Diego Comic Con. Illustration courtesty of Emily Miller.

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“Never underestimate the power of collective effervescence.” Rifling through the jumble of articulately-worded sentences, that phrase, for whatever reason, stands out. Maybe it’s because of its simplicity. Perhaps it’s too much candor packed into such a short phrase. 

Even after working with Supernatural actor Misha Collins and his nonprofit Random Acts for a few years, his candidness and the cerebral method with which he approaches his experiences within the Supernatural fandom can still come as a refreshing surprise. There’s a method to the madness, however silly it may sound.

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After messaging Collins earlier in the week to discuss the topic of fandom mobilization within the “geek” community — the idea that celebrities can and should channel the cumulative driving force behind each of their respective niche groups toward the greater good — he explains to me how and why, in his opinion, fan-based philanthropy is able to thrive.

“World domination was definitely one of my main objectives in founding Random Acts—in a totally altruistic way, of course,” he jokes, referring to the organization he helped to co-found back in 2009 with a group of Supernatural fans. Back then, they referred to themselves as Minion Stimulus and were dedicated to obtaining U.S. stimulus money to fund different humanitarian causes. “The idea of celebrity is completely nonsensical to me,” he adds, “but I’m on a TV show that people care about, [and] I was initially looking for a way to leverage that audience. Random Acts, which aims to change the world one act of kindness at a time, became a natural extension of that.” 

The group got its start during a particularly trying time. In the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 event that left the coastal capital city of Port-au-Prince and surrounding regions devastated, Collins tweeted a call to action that, over the subsequent weeks, outgrew its own ambitions. Within a few months, his nearly 300,000 followers (he now has over 2 million) had managed to raise some $30,000, all of which was funneled to relief efforts in the region. 

Since then, the Supernatural actor and his crew of supporters have built what amounts to an empire in the geek world: Random Acts has raised enough to not only fund a number of charitable efforts, but a children’s home in Jacmel, Haiti, a community farm in Uganda, and a new campus for one of Nicaragua’s free city high school programs. Collins has also established an annual international scavenger hunt called GISHWHES, which gives back generously to charity by charging a comparatively small registration fee.

Supernatural fans reaffirm my belief in the Random Acts mission — to change the world with kindness — all the time,” he notes affectionately. Then, characteristically, he switches pace, pitching a humorous afterthought. “So long as [Supernatural alum and How to Get Away With Murder actor] Matt Cohen is willing to take his shirt off for charity at our fan conventions, and so long as the fans are willing to pay him to do that….” he writes, trailing off.

A few weeks after our initial email conversation, Collins and the Supernatural team head down to Sydney and Melbourne for the Australian “All Hell Breaks Loose” convention. At the end of the weekend, a troupe of altruistic fans drops off two giant checks to the Random Acts table. Together, they total $10,000.

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In the memo line, the organizer has written cheekily, “For: Matt Cohen keeping his shirt on.” 

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Collins isn’t the only one turning enthusiasm into activism, but he and the CW family as a whole have been setting the standard of late. Collins’ Supernatural colleague Jared Padalecki, who has battled depression himself in the past, has dutifully been powering the mental health awareness campaign, Always Keep Fighting. There’s Arrow star Stephen Amell (F— Cancer), Supernatural co-star Jensen Ackles (You Are Not Alone, Team Levi), The Vampire Diaries’ Ian Somerhalder (the Ian Somerhalder Foundation), and Jane the Virgin’s breakout star, Gina Rodriguez (We Will), all of whom have made massive efforts to give back and have encouraged fans to do the same.

Fellow Supernatural and 2012 actor Osric Chau has set his own pace in the world of charity. The sunny 29-year-old has spent the greater part of the past few years fundraising for several nonprofit initiatives, most recently, Random Acts. In 2015, Chau traveled with the nonprofit to help out with construction efforts on the aforementioned free high school campus and to assemble eco-friendly stoves and water filtration systems in one of San Juan del Sur’s rural villages. In part because of his involvement, the organization was able to recruit dozens more volunteer fundraisers, several of them eager to work alongside him in Nicaragua. By year’s end, the group managed to raise a mammoth $179,000.

After being asked what he thinks makes the power of fandom so distinct, Chau says, “I think the key element in this type of excitement is the community. Whether it be a fandom, a school, a neighborhood. When you have a group of people in a shared situation with shared concerns, that kind of excitement to address those concerns is possible.” 

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Outside of the CW in the past 10 years, celebrity-fandom activism has also begun blossoming: Robert Downey Jr.’s recent “Best Night Ever”; Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Doctors without Borders advocacy; Chris Hardwick’s annual Course of the Force Star Wars run, which benefits the Make-a-Wish foundation; Community actress Yvette Nicole Brown’s work with Lollipop Theater; and Chuck star Zachary Levi’s work for Operation Smile.

Levi has all but made charity activism a lifestyle. Each summer, the actor puts on the celebrated Nerd HQ festivities, a free event across from the San Diego Comic Con convention. Ticket sales from a couple of dozen celebrity panels, and the auctions that are held alongside them, all benefit the previously mentioned Operation Smile nonprofit, which provides life-changing surgery to children with cleft-palates across the globe. Since 2011, Levi’s Nerd HQ — and more importantly, the fan-base that supports it — has managed to raise almost $800,000 for the charity. This year will likely be no different.

“There aren’t a lot of places or convention-y type things where you can talk to fans for an hour and raise 4 or 5 grand,” Levi told Hypable in 2015. “… We just allow for a safe, but really fun and organic place to do that. And I think that a lot of people get that, and then you add the fact that they’re raising money for charity it makes it sweeter.”

Brown too has made sure that fans know exactly which causes she backs: On the front page of her official website, the actress has included a link to each and every charitable group with which she proudly associates herself, and for the past few years, she’s made appearances at a number of fan-associated fundraising events, including Levi’s own Nerd HQ. One of her favorites among those is the Lollipop Theatre, a group that brings entertainment opportunities to hospitalized children who might otherwise miss out.

“While the kids are doing treatments they’re also going to school, they’ve also seen Harry Potter and Twilight, so it’s not like they’re missing out on their childhood or the touchstones of their childhood,” Brown told Pro Player Insiders back in 2012. “I had been taking part in that. It’s hard though, because you see them and the babies are not well. It’s a difficult charity, but it’s a worthwhile charity.”

It’s not all heartstrings and tearful montages though. Brown, Jeff Goldblum, Dax Shepard, and Nerdist founder Chris Hardwick recently got together to pull off a star-studded Red Nose Day special alongside the cast of The Walking Dead, to huge acclaim. In the end, the Red Nose Day special and its pledged figures and casts managed to raise some $30 million. 

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Not everyone can raise millions of dollars in one day (Red Nose Day has NBC to thank for that). But equally impressive fan efforts crop up on a regular basis in the geek world, many of them fostered and nurtured into existence by public figures, actors, writers, and production crews of niche shows and webseries alike. Whether they’re crowdfunding for a dire cause or throwing their weight behind an established effort, each one works with their respective fandom to recast the bulk of that collective power into something bigger and better.

Geek and Sundry founder Felicia Day, who’s had recurring roles in The Guild and Supernatural, as well as appearances in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Eureka, has dedicated herself to working in tandem with the fanbase that has propelled her different projects over the years. Most recently, that same open-line, philanthropic relationship led Day to collaborate with tee-shirt company Represent on her “Embrace Your Weird” campaign, which urged followers to take pride in their unique quirks while simultaneously raising money for the anti-bullying charity Stomp Out Bullying.

“Embracing who I am and the weirdnesses of my life got me to where I am today. And that’s what I want people to take away from it,” Day told a crowd of fans at last year’s VidCon. “Embrace your weirdness, because that’s what makes you special in life … the more you can love all the weirdness inside you, the more you’ll succeed.” 

With a fan-base that includes impressionable youngsters and open-minded grown-ups alike, taking on a campaign that benefits both isn’t just smart — it’s a model that other big names eager to dive into the charity pool will likely follow for years to come.

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No doubt, mobilizing fan efforts into a much larger charity initiative can be difficult to master. The reality of the fame-game is a complicated one. 

“I work on a TV show and do fan conventions and have two small kids and work on art projects and work on Random Acts and run GISHWHES … and sometimes I feel i just don’t have enough time or brain cells to go around,” Collins says. “Fortunately, I have an amazing staff of truly dedicated and brilliant volunteers… and these various projects I’m working on tend to support one another, which helps.”

It’s a busy life, helming a busy public image while simultaneously transforming energy from an excited fan-base into something tangible, but the ultimate payoff seems to be worth it. Eventually, Collins answers the big question; What does he hope to achieve with all this do-good business?

“As far as an end game goes? That first thing wasn’t a joke,” he says, referring to his earlier comments. “World domination, absolutely.”

A shortened version of this article ran in Den of Geek’s special edition print issue for San Diego Comic Con 2016. Read the full issue below: 

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