Kevin O'Leary's Insidious "Charity"

Many people may know Kevin O’Leary from the hit TV show Shark Tank, where entrepreneurs looking for investments in their company go to make their pitch to O’Leary and his fellow sharks. Most people, however, may not know that the Canadian multimillionaire got his start developing a company that sold educational software, and has had a lifelong passion for photography. Now, O’Leary is combining his desire to help young entrepreneurs with his artistic passion in what some are saying is one of the most insidious things that has ever been described as “charity.”

In September 2013, O’Leary launched an exhibit displaying selections from 40 years worth of his photography. The exhibit started in Toronto, and is scheduled to stop in various cities for six weeks at a time. O’Leary isn’t trying to cash in on his celebrity to make a buck however; he’s donating the sales of his photography to the Future Dragon Fund, which is named after the Canadian version of Shark Tank, and will hold contests to give away prizes aspiring teenage entrepreneurs.

O’Leary claims to have raised $70,000 before the exhibit even launched, and with many individual prints priced at $5,000 and above, it’s not unreasonable to expect the fund to quickly amass a quarter million or more. O'Leary seems to be trying to give it away almost as quickly as it comes in though; the first round of contests, which is currently underway, runs through February 26, 2014, and will give away one $5,000 prize each week to an 11th or 12th graders in Canada, for a total of $50,000 in prizes. 

When asked why he chose to use his photography as a method of raising funds for a charitable initiative, O’Leary responded, “The visibility. You can go into a city, get a gallery space like this, and make it a focal point for a whole bunch of activity for six weeks through different events – everything from seminars and press events, to parties with financial institutions to discuss the photography. Usually when you launch a charity in the press, there is all this hype, but it is quickly forgotten. This allows a focal point to keep it alive and exposed to different audiences across the country. CBC will offer local support throughout, and the charity will be in focus for six weeks in each city. “

Seems like a pretty good strategy, though one has to wonder about O’Leary’s motives. Some, such as Toronto Now’s John Smiley, criticized not only the method, but also the purpose of the Fund. “His photo show and its tie-in charity is essentially a farce, as laughable as the idea of paying $5,000 for a print of a photo of a defaced Jim Morrison bust, [one of the photographs in the exhibition], hanging it your home, and calling it art. All under the guise that, in O’Leary’s words, you’re ‘supporting an initiative.’ All under that most insidious guise that it’s All About The Kids.”

It’s not charity, but rather an investment, Smiley insists. O’Leary, of course, is not expecting any returns from the winners of his contest, who can use the money for whatever they want, but as Smiley explains, what O’Leary is really investing in is the continued existence of financial capitalism. To that, I’d add that he’s also investing in the Kevin O’Leary brand, since he’s gotten a decent amount of publicity from it.

O’Leary’s brand of “charity” here is somewhat reminiscent of Peter Thiel’s fellowship program, which pays promising young entrepreneurs to drop out of, or forego college altogether. Former Harvard President and White House Economic Advisor Larry Summers recently called Thiel's program “the single most misdirected bit of philanthropy this decade,” and Summers wasn’t the only one to jump on Thiel—“We were promised flying cars; we got caffeine spray instead,” Venture Beat chided. The problem, ultimately, is that while promoting entrepreneurship isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s really hard to justify as a form of charity—there’s no evidence that these types of awards, especially when they lack any direction, have any impact at all on major social issues that the free market really has no incentive to address in the first place.

 “It's like remedying a disease with more of that same disease,” says Smiley of O’Leary’s approach to philanthropy. Indeed, perhaps the best thing that can be said about it is that at least O’Leary isn’t encouraging kids to drop out of school—in fact he’s actually mentioned that one option for award recipients might be to put the money toward their education. We should, at least, be able to agree, however, that to label this as charity is, at best, deceptive. 

Of course, that doesn't mean that kids who are eligible should pass up a shot at $5,000, so click here if you're interested in learning more about the contest and how to enter.