When Avril Lavigne decided to launch a foundation aiding children with disabilities last year, she quickly learned that doing the right thing was going to be harder than she thought. "It's such a major deal," says Lavigne. "You have to have everything in place and have to have a really good team. It's very serious. Music comes naturally. I have to push myself when I get up and talk about this in a room."
Lavigne is one of a growing group of musicians — including Madonna, John Legend, Bono, Shakira and Wyclef Jean — who have set up charities and foundations to tackle issues from world hunger to inner-city education. "The relationship between a musician and their audience is far more powerful than the one between an actor and their audience," says Trevor Neilson, co-founder of the Global Philanthropy Group, which assists artists (including Lavigne, Legend and Shakira) with their charitable efforts. "A musician with a large fan base has an opportunity to mobilize people that might be more powerful than their opportunity to write checks."
But even the best intentions can run aground. In March, the Kanye West Foundation, launched in 2007 to curb dropout rates in schools, mysteriously closed its doors despite having received $443,000 in "contributions, grants [and] gifts" in 2009. (West and his team declined comment.) Early this year, Madonna abandoned plans to build a school for girls in the African nation of Malawi after an audit revealed that some of the $3.8 million raised for that project was unaccounted for — Madonna promptly reorganized the foundation; the board of directors and other staffers were let go.
Not surprisingly, many artists, including Bruce Springsteen and Lady Gaga, opt to partner with established, credible nonprofits rather than launching their own. (On her Monster Ball Tour, for instance, Lady Gaga donated $20,000 a night to homeless-LGBT organizations.) "It's great when a famous person brings attention to a cause," says Laurie Styron of the American Institute of Philanthropy, which rates charities' effectiveness. "But when it comes to distributing money, you have to have a charity with expertise. We say donate directly to the charity."
Still, many musician-run nonprofits are remarkably effective. Bono's ONE campaign has been lauded for raising money to increase awareness of world hunger. In April, Shakira's Barefoot Foundation broke ground on the sixth school it has built in her native Colombia. And for three years Legend's Show Me Campaign has been awarding $3,000 summer fellowships to college students to work at troubled schools.
According to sources, the death of West's mother, Donda West, played a major role in his foundation closing, since she was the driving force behind it. "My instinct is he didn't have a personal motivation to have it be a big part of his life at this moment, or it might have been too painful for him, since it was something his mother did," says one source.
And in light of bad press, Madonna is redirecting some of the $11 million she herself has put into Raising Malawi toward nonprofit and educational organizations already in place in the country. It's a lesson Wyclef Jean learned last year, when his Yéle Haiti Foundation came under scrutiny for having used funds to pay for concert expenses.
Jean hired new accountants and now includes detailed financial breakdowns on the foundation's website — and Yéle Haiti has been instrumental in distributing water to combat cholera and starting the Yéle Corps to build communities after the 2010 earthquake. "The lesson Clef had to learn is that it's very different from music," says his brother and attorney Sam Jean. "When you have a controversy in music, there's rarely anything that can kill your career. But when you're accused of misappropriating funds with a charity, it has the potential to bring the charity down."
This story is from Rolling Stone isse 1134/1135, available on newsstands and through Rolling Stone All Access on June 24, 2011.