(Clarification: Although the ONE foundation's $15 million in funding in 2008 is listed in tax documents as "contributions," the organization does not solicit funding from the general public but from foundations and board members, according to ONE's website and a statement from a spokeswoman.)
Tonight, U2 bring their enormously successful 360 Tour to Baltimore, and if previous U2 shows are any guide (trust me, I've seen them 11 times), the show will feature not only the soaring anthems for which they are rightly known but also a healthy dose of promotion for the band's many charitable causes. But before concert-goers respond to Bono and Co.'s call, they should know of the somewhat checkered history of the band's activism.
Last year, Bono's nonprofit ONE foundation was at the center of semi-scandal when it was revealed that in 2008 the organization raised $14,993,873 in public donations — of which only $184,732 (or just over ONE percent) was distributed to charities. Where did the rest go? Well, more than $8 million went to salaries for executives and employees at ONE. In response to the fusillade of criticism following these revelations, ONE spokesman Oliver Buston explained, "We don't provide programs on the ground. We're an advocacy and campaigning organization."
Much of the "advocacy" is directed at governments; organizations like ONE aggressively lobby world leaders to contribute "aid" (read: tax dollars) to anti-poverty and environmental causes. Yet the U2 organization has gone out of its way to reduce its own tax burden — in 2006, the band moved part of its business operation from Ireland to take advantage of generous tax breaks offered to artists in the Netherlands.
The move infuriated many left-wing advocacy groups, some of whom have targeted the band's upcoming gig at England's Glastonbury Festival for protest. "Bono claims to care about the developing world, but U2 greedily indulges in the very kind of tax avoidance which is crippling the poor nations of this world," said a spokesman for Art Uncut.
Here in the U.S., guitarist The Edge has outraged environmentalists with his effort to build five mansions in Malibu, plans dashed by an 8-4 rejection by the California Coastal Commission over concerns the construction would adversely affect habitat and water quality. "In 38 years of this commission's existence, this is one of the three worst projects that I've seen in terms of environmental devastation. … You can't be serious about being an environmentalist and pick this location," says commission executive director Peter Douglas.
A band that wears its (bleeding) heart so blatantly on its sleeve is fair game for these sorts of criticisms, of course. Having studied both liberal culture and nonprofits for a living, I am not at all surprised by the hypocrisy/inefficiency on display in the band's charitable pursuits. But as a lifelong U2 fan, I worry that the band is eroding its own musical legacy by repeatedly appropriating its songs into these various causes du jour.
Like a lot of fans, there has scarcely been a major event in my life for which a U2 album did not serve as soundtrack. As Bono once astutely observed, when people cheer U2 songs, they are really cheering their own lives. The songs become melded with intensely personal moments and emotions, an existential alchemy that only music can achieve. When music becomes appropriated to serve fashionable trends, however, it loses its power to move.
Take "One" for example, widely considered one of the best love songs ever written. Bono has hijacked this song's simple and evocative title to serve as moniker for his dubious and inefficient foundation, thereby emptying the music of the meaning and memories his fans have poured into it all these years.
That's a shame.
Matt Patterson, a Rockville resident, is senior editor at the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C. and a contributor to "Proud to be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation" (HarperCollins, 2010). His email is mpattersononline.com.