Charlize Theron encourages people to find ways to help through philanthropy at Town & Country summit

NEW YORK (AP) — Charlize Theron remembers the moment her role in philanthropy clicked into place.

The Oscar-winning actress had been talking with community leaders in her homeland of South Africa about how they could tackle the AIDS epidemic there. “We heard them say, ‘We know what to do, but we just need the resources to do it,’” Theron said Thursday at the Town & Country Philanthropy Summit in Manhattan. “And I thought, ‘Oh, wait, I can do that.’”

As a result, she created the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project in 2007 to fund community leaders in South Africa who were already working on the AIDS epidemic and then expanded to gender equity issues. “Our philosophy is always listen and they’ll tell us what we need to do and then we help with that,” Theron told The Associated Press in an interview backstage before her appearance at the summit.

It's a strategy that resonated throughout the Town & Country Philanthropy Summit, which celebrated its 10th anniversary Thursday.

“Philanthropy, for me, comes down to a very simple question: ‘What can I do?’,” said Stellene Volandes, Town & Country's editor in chief. “When you feel like there is something you might be able to do, it means you still have hope and it gives each and every one of us a role in making the world better.”

Volandes said philanthropy has been part of Town & Country essentially since the magazine launched in 1846. She said the Philanthropy Summit began in 2013 at a time when “the age of the anonymous donor was close to being over.”

“It’s when philanthropy became news,” she said. “Who was giving? How much were they giving? Who’s getting their name on the building?”

A lot has changed in philanthropy since then, with another sea change brewing in the sector.

Philanthropists, Volandes said, aren’t just the people who write big checks. They are people who serve others. And the race is on to find and activate as many of those people as possible.

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said society functions best when the government and philanthropy work together. He said his nonprofit After-School All-Stars, which provides programs to support students and their families across the country, is an example of philanthropy stepping in where government support is lacking.

“Your political philosophy falls apart right in front of you,” he said. “I'm a Republican. Is the government becoming a nanny for the kids who should be doing their own thing? ... No. I saw firsthand that the government needed to get involved.”

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s thoughts about philanthropy being “commendable,” but that it should not “cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” Walker urged those in attendance to engage in philanthropy that goes ”beyond generosity and toward justice."

“One of the trends we should be concerned about in our country is the growing level of inequality,” Walker told The Associated Press. “That means there are fewer middle class people giving and I think we should be worried about that. That’s a larger systemic issue in our economy that should be addressed to ensure that we have a vibrant and vital middle class.”

The results of that inequality are already being felt. In 2022, total giving fell for only the fourth time in four decades — down 3.4% to $499.3 billion, which is a drop of 10.5% when adjusted for inflation — according to a Giving USA report released in June. More concerning to nonprofits, though, is the decline in the number of Americans who donate. In 2000, more than two-thirds of Americans donated. In 2022, that percentage dropped to less than half, according to the report.

The reason declines are not more severe is because wealthier Americans, like those who read Town & Country magazine. are donating more.

According to the 2023 Bank of America Study of Philanthropy released last month, affluent households, on average, gave 19% more in 2022 than they did before the pandemic started. Researchers defined affluent as households with a net worth of more than $1 million or annual income of more than $200,000.

Women in affluent households are more likely to volunteer than men and are more likely to influence the decisions about giving, said Una Osili, the report’s lead researcher and associate dean for Research and International Programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. However, she said women are less likely to serve on the boards governing nonprofits – providing an opportunity for change for many organizations.

“There seems to be a gap in terms of leadership opportunities for women in nonprofits at a time when our society is concerned with equity and bringing diverse voices to the table,” Osili said. “That’s a point that should be called out.”

Theron said the general need for more female leaders is why her Africa Outreach Project is so focused on gender equity and safety for girls, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic set back their work at least a decade.

“It's been proven that economies rise instantly when females step into leadership," she said. “It’s one of the biggest ways to solve some of the biggest problems that we have in South Africa. That’s another reason why I really believe in female empowerment.”


Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit