Photo courtesy of Getty Images. 

The Director Of Rihanna’s Charity Foundation Thinks We Need To Act Before Disasters Happen

Meet the bad-ass brain behind The Diamond Ball.

by Ashley Tyner
Sep 19 2018, 12:33am

Photo courtesy of Getty Images. 

You’ve probably already seen Rihanna’s op-ed for The Guardian— if not, I’ll wait!— and her tweets calling on world leaders to fund schooling for disadvantaged youth by donating to the Global Partnership for Education. You’ve definitely seen the photos from this year’s Diamond Ball, the coolest and glitziest evening in philanthropy which happened to raise nearly $6 million dollars that evening. But you probably don’t know a whole lot about the Clara Lionel Foundation (CFL), the charity behind the ball, started six years ago when Rihanna’s grandmother passed away from cancer. We spoke to Justine Lucas, Executive Director of CFL and the woman who runs the show day-to-day, about getting out in front of disaster, combatting HIV in Malawi, and our responsibility to put down our phones in order to focus on others.

GARAGE: The Diamond Ball is all about raising money for the Clara Lionel Foundation. Can you tell us what you guys do and how you do it?

Justine Lucas: Clara Lionel Foundation was founded in 2012. Rihanna named it after her grandparents, Clara and Lionel. I think like many foundations, CLF was inspired by an event that was personal. Rihanna’s grandma passed away from cancer, and she had a realization that there was limited access to good oncology care on the island that she lived in. So she really became passionate about trying to follow that challenge. Now, we do work primarily in the spaces of education and emergency response. Our education work is mostly in the Caribbean, and in Africa as well. Our Emergency Response efforts are focused on responding to natural disasters in the Caribbean. About a year ago, we responded in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Mexico, and Texas. We just got back from rebuilding the first school in Dominica.

I’m interested to know how the work has changed since you started. We know that climate change has become a way bigger part of the conversation than when you started doing this. I wonder if there have been any big revelations, or shifts in focus?

That’s a great question. I would say that it’s been an evolution. We seek out and fund very well-vetted partners that do great local work. But we found ourselves a bit frustrated with the response space. There’s that typical model, where the aftermath of a hurricane only gets attention for four weeks or so and then everyone forgets about it.

So, even some of the big partners, they just engage in short-term response and then people sort of walk away. Once you really dive in, you realize the whole decades-old model is waiting for hurricanes to occur. Climate change is a real thing, and now that we accept that we need to act upon it, the natural evolution is to accept the fact that natural disasters are going to keep happening with increased frequency and to prepare for them, rather than wait.

Is it difficult managing both the long and short term needs of victims?

We just announced a fund around our emergency response work. Not only are we raising dollars to engage in that short and long-term response, but also to raise capital that would be used on preparedness and resiliency. We want to be investing year-round to help support vulnerable communities on the front end.

What else sets you guys apart?

Something that I’ve learned over the course of my career in the non-profits space is that it’s just as hard to raise $25,000 as it is to raise $1 million. I feel really proud of the fact that Clara Lionel Foundation has such great ambition. For example, with the Emergency Response Fund, we’re going to raise $25 million in the coming year. We haven’t done it yet, but we’re setting our ambition very high!

Obviously, Rihanna is an innovator and so I would say that the other piece is an innovative partnership model that results in a lot of dollars going towards really good work. The philanthropy touches all of her partnerships, so we set ourselves apart by being able to do things like a CLF sneaker with Puma.

What are some of your favorite success stories?

I’ve been thinking about and questioning the word “Success,” because it feels like the work always continues. That said, an example of success would be our work in Malawi. We support thousands of girls to go to secondary school and education isn’t free there, so often times, the boys get to go and the girls don't. That is a very vulnerable time for girls to not to be in school. They are subject to early childhood marriage, HIV, and early pregnancies. So to be in school is not just about getting an education; it’s about protecting them against other forces. It’s also important to figure out what happens after the girls graduate from high school. We found a couple of partners that were doing incredible work in HIV door-to-door testing, using mobile health clinics to reach rural communities in the Southern most district of Malawi, where there’s a 22% prevalence rate of HIV.

We live in such a self-obsessed world, and everyone seems to be focused on the best way to promote their own image. I’m curious to know what drives you towards service and philanthropy, and community spaces as opposed to, you know, all the other options?

I see it as a responsibility. I’ve had the great opportunity to travel lots of places in the world. And just to see the inequality… it feels really unfair. To be born somewhere, and to have all the opportunity in the world. Or be born in a rural part of the world where you're living on a dollar a day. I'm here on this planet for a short amount of time. It’s just something that I wanna work to fix.

diamond ball
Emergency Response
Natural Disaster