#parent | #kids | The Melbourne charity king with Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Hugh Jackman on speed dial

In our first interview, I’m surprised how young Hugh Evans looks. He’s 37, but he resembles a skinny teenager: his face on the computer screen is unlined, he’s wearing a T-shirt, and I can see he’s sporting the same spiky haircut he had in pictures from 20 years ago. In our second interview, something goes wrong with the video and I can’t see him at all, so I spend 45 minutes looking at a black screen in the bright Australian morning, listening to his disembodied voice emerging out of the New York dusk.

These difficulties may be symbolic of a larger reality, which is that it’s hard to reach Hugh Evans at all these days. Part of this – most of it, probably – is his American base and the issues of COVID-19. But some portion also appears to be the machinery that surrounds him as co-founder and CEO of Global Citizen, the hottest charity on earth since partnering with Lady Gaga (and her mum) in an online and globally televised concert special event called One World: Together at Home.

This celebrities-singing-in-their-sitting-rooms spectacular was shown on nine major digital platforms and 60 broadcast networks across more than 175 countries, including Network Ten in Australia, on April 19 – and drew a worldwide audience of more than 300 million in support of frontline health workers.

Lady Gaga performing in this year’s One World: Together At Home concert.Credit:

It raised $US127.9 million ($184 million), mostly via corporate donations, for charitable groups including the World Health Organisation’s global COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. This puts it up there with that other legendary fundraiser, Live Aid, as the highest grossing charity concert in history. (Live Aid raised $US127 million in 1985.)

The money will go to vaccine development, virus tracking and containment efforts, strengthening health systems, and food, housing and loan assistance to those in need as a result of the pandemic. Its 100-odd participant list reads like the most exclusive collection of random celebrities you’ve seen in your life: Stevie Wonder, Oprah, Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, David Beckham, Lewis Hamilton, Heidi Klum, Ellen DeGeneres, the Rolling Stones and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Melbourne-born Hugh Evans isn’t famous – certainly not, you know, SpongeBob famous – and he clearly doesn’t want to be. Indeed, I get the strong feeling that he’d rather not be talking to me – or, perhaps, to any journalist. Global Citizen uses one of the most aggressive PR companies in the US, Sunshine Sachs (which also represents Meghan Markle), protecting its media image generally and, it seems, its CEO personally.

Though his internal PR seems charming, it takes more than 40 emails to manage just two 45-minute interviews. His scheduler seems nice, too – but, still, a scheduler! No one I have interviewed has ever had a scheduler. Angelina Jolie didn’t have a scheduler. Nor did the Dalai Lama.

This might be simply company policy; it might be how things work in the US. It might be a function of what Mick Sheldrick, one of Evans’ close colleagues (global director of policy and advocacy at Global Citizen) and an old Australian friend, describes as “the way Hugh builds up trust with people – he has a small group of people he will consult on everything”.

I interpret this to mean that Evans is an intense person with many commitments, who chooses his interactions carefully.

“Amazon is worth a trillion dollars; Jeff Bezos could eliminate global poverty. He could do it on his own.”

Certainly, it’s hard to get a handle on what Evans really thinks – except about global poverty. On this, he’s extremely clear: the goal of his life, and of his celebrity-laden organisation, is nothing less than entirely eliminating it.

This seems like the kind of motherhood statement that’s easy to say and impossible to do, I say during our first conversation.

Evans smiles. “Global poverty is absolutely eradicable within our lifetime,” he says. “Extreme poverty has actually been decreasing for many years [from 1.9 billion people in 1990 to an estimated 650 million in 2018, according to the World Bank], although COVID-19 may change that. But it won’t be eradicated by traditional charity. I actually believe that charity as we know it is dead. My thesis is, if it hasn’t ended poverty in the past 250 years, then there’s no reason it should in the next 250.”

And yet, he goes on, there’s nothing inherently permanent about poverty – no natural law that says it must exist. Evans believes in Nelson Mandela’s theory that, like slavery and apartheid, poverty is made by man, and is eradicable by man.

“There are more than 2000 billionaires on the planet,” he points out. “With a net worth of multiple trillions. If they each gave at the same rate as Bill and Melinda Gates are currently giving, that in itself would unlock enough money to finance the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals [which include eliminating poverty] twice over. Amazon is worth a trillion dollars; Jeff Bezos could eliminate global poverty. He could do it on his own.”

This is exactly the kind of thing Bill Gates is trying to promote with his Giving Pledge, by which the world’s most wealthy can commit most of their fortunes to philanthropy. But so far only 200-odd billionaires (10 per cent) have signed up, not including Bezos (though his ex-wife Mackenzie has).

As Evans puts it, “If we want to truly resolve the causes of systemic poverty, we have to have systemic solutions.”

This means solutions on a huge scale: involving entire national governments, huge multinational corporations and millions of engaged ordinary people demanding change. And it’s in pursuit of systemic change that he’s standing in the New York dusk, dealing with pandemics and race riots, and running a global organisation with 140-odd staff and offices in Melbourne, London, Berlin, Toronto and Johannesburg. After all, changing the world doesn’t come easy.

Hugh Evans decided to eradicate global poverty at 14, while lying on a two-million-tonne garbage dump called Smokey Mountain in the heart of Manila’s largest slum. He was in year 9, on a World Vision trip to the Philippines. It turned out to be not quite your average school excursion.

“That day they gave us each a host family, and off we went,” recalls Evans, laughing. “[Into] the most intense slum area in central Manila. I think they’ve reviewed their protocols since then!” His host family had a child called Sonny Boy about Evans’ age; when night fell and it was time to sleep, everyone lay down in a line on a slab of concrete, on top of the garbage, out in the open.

When I ask him what he remembers now about this night, he closes his eyes as he speaks. “They were very gracious: they had a flat straw mat, and they wanted me to have that underneath me. They slept soundly, and I didn’t sleep almost at all. There were cockroaches running everywhere, and this terrible smell. And I realised it was pure chance that I was born where I was born and that Sonny Boy was born there. And, to be candid, I decided I was going to commit my whole life to changing that.”

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Unlike most teenage vows made in the middle of the night, Evans kept his. He returned home – to the leafy Melbourne suburb of Kew where he spent his childhood – and devoted his life to replacing the random accident of birth with the reliable factors of a better life: nutrition, health care, education.

The year after his Philippines trip he won a scholarship from his school, Carey Baptist Grammar, to Woodstock, an international school in the Himalayan foothills. Woodstock is attended by the children of diplomats and the Indian aristocracy, but what mattered to Evans was the chance to “extend my experience in the developing world”. (As his close friend Peter Murphy, the global co-chair of Global Citizen, affectionately puts it when I ask him what Evans is like as a person: “The word ‘earnest’ springs to mind.”)

One of his favourite events at Woodstock, he confesses in his memoir Stone of the Mountain: the Hugh Evans Story (published by Lothian when he was, ahem, 21), was Activity Week, when students could choose to go hiking in the Himalayas, visit the Dalai Lama’s historic home of Dharamshala or volunteer in the slums of Delhi. Guess which option Evans chose? Added to which, “every weekend you could help out at a disabled children’s school, or at a branch of Mother Teresa’s charity that wasn’t too far away”.

Back in Melbourne in 2001, Evans did his high school final exams, and planned a gap year in South Africa working with HIV/ AIDS orphans “to learn more about systemic poverty”. But first, there was the small detail of funding.

“I come from a middle-class family,” he says – his mother, Kirsten Albrecht, owns Melbourne jewellery boutique turned studio, Kozminsky, which has been in the family for decades; his father, Richard Evans, is a hydrogeologist – “but there was no way they could fund me going overseas to do volunteer work. And nor should they have.” Instead, he convinced World Vision to introduce a brand new Youth Ambassador program, with Evans as inaugural ambassador. He also raised $25,000 in donations from Australian companies. “It’s what they call over here in the US ‘hustle’,” he says, smiling.

Many people were bemused by Evans and his plans – especially while he was still at school. How could these teenage expeditions into Philippine slums, Calcutta charity hospitals and countries ravaged by HIV/AIDS and violence possibly end well?

“When he went to India, a lot of parents said to me, ‘How could you let him go?’ ” remembers Albrecht. “To which I said, ‘How could I not?’ What would be the point of stopping him? He could have not gone – but he also could have been hit by a bus on Richmond Street in Kew! All I know is that whatever he set out to do, he would do.”

Evans in 2003 in Embo, a rural township near Durban, South Africa, where he spent his gap year overseeing development projects.

Evans in 2003 in Embo, a rural township near Durban, South Africa, where he spent his gap year overseeing development projects.Credit:

Global Citizen is the ultimate expression of Hugh Evans’ teenage vow. It’s an activist organisation that, via an app and a website, encourages people to take “actions” against poverty. It doesn’t run its own projects, but researches and selects causes to support. As a member, you don’t donate money. Instead, you take “actions” – as suggested by Global Citizen – that contribute to ending poverty.

So you might choose to send a pre-written tweet to the UN supporting the reduction of ocean plastic pollution; you might sign an automated petition to President David Malpass of the World Bank asking for the equality of girls and women; you might send an already composed email to Prime Minister Scott Morrison requesting an increase in Australian international aid from its current rate of 0.21 per cent of gross national income to the UN-recommended 0.7 per cent. You might do all three, and many others.

According to Evans, every action of every Global Citizen – there are 50-odd “actions” you can undertake at any one time – flows towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which include eliminating poverty by 2030. Critics of Global Citizen have sometimes called this broad range of targets ineffective; a “scattergun approach”.

“We’ve never wanted to say, ‘You must do this,’ ” defends Peter Murphy. “What we try to do is build a suite of opportunities, where we can say, ‘You choose, because all of these things will have a positive impact on the world’s poorest people.’ It’s broad because poverty is a complex issue.”

Another criticism is that the organisation encourages “clicktivism”: seducing people away from real-world activism by the ease, and perhaps illusory impact, of online support. Evans, however, believes it’s a good entry-level form of action, that hopefully encourages people on to more significant work. There’s also evidence that it works.

In 2017, for instance, former PM Julia Gillard used a Global Citizen platform to call for $US3.1 billion to give 870 million children around the world access to high-quality education via the organisation she chairs, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

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In the following months, 263,672 Global Citizen members sent tweets, emails and messages to world leaders and corporations echoing her call. And in February 2018, donors pledged more than $US2.3 billion to the cause, thus assisting 700 million children. According to its own report, Global Citizen is “continuing to work with partners to ensure the remaining funding gap of $US800 million is filled”.

Of course, Global Citizen wasn’t the only organisation supporting the GPE, but it was by many analytics the largest and most effective. It conducts highly publicised annual reports of commitments made versus money paid out – and today, the figures stand at $US48.4 billion pledged to Global Citizen-supported causes, and $US22 billion delivered (the remainder is, in many cases, tied up in multi-year projects). Along the way, almost 25 million actions have been taken by members.

Evans, with former prime minister Julia Gillard and pop star Rihanna, an ambassador for The Global Partnership For Education, in Malawi in 2017.

Evans, with former prime minister Julia Gillard and pop star Rihanna, an ambassador for The Global Partnership For Education, in Malawi in 2017.Credit:Evan Rogers/Global Citizen

How do the celebrities fit? They’ve been integral to Evans since he helped organise the Make Poverty History concerts in Australia in 2006 and 2007 while he was still a uni student. Bono, the Edge, and Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam performed, and future prime minister Kevin Rudd took to the stage and promised to almost double Australia’s foreign aid budget if elected.

This was Evans’ first experience of the powerful combination of fame and music, employed to build grassroots support on behalf of a cause. Rudd’s promise was broken once Tony Abbott came to power, but to Evans the celebrity/audience/world-leader model had real potential.

Today, many of Global Citizen’s most successful campaigns – like Together At Home – are based on this template. In past years, multiple Global Citizen concerts have been held around the world – in New York, Mumbai, Durban, Hamburg – at which, instead of buying a ticket, you have to earn one, by taking “actions” as a Global Citizen member. These concerts are held to coincide with major power-broker gatherings like the G20 and the UN General Assembly, and world leaders appear alongside celebrities to announce their new initiatives against poverty.

Over the years, the likes of Indian PM Narendra Modi, US president Barack Obama (via video link) and South African president Cyril Ramaphosa have all appeared, as well as Microsoft’s Bill Gates. The chance to reach an audience of thousands (and millions online); to present your government’s most benevolent and altruistic face to the world; to be introduced by Beyoncé. What world leader could ask for more?

For the audience, meanwhile, attending concerts may be, and no doubt is, fuelled by a genuine desire for change. But let’s be honest: it’s also fuelled by the desire to see Rihanna or Stevie Wonder live.

“We start with a central policy premise – like education,” says Evans. “We find a powerful artist who believes in the premise; we drive that premise as a seminal moment in pop culture; we use that moment to call on world leaders to make those multibillion-dollar pledges; then we hold leaders accountable to make sure they follow through.”

This accountability is crucial. But isn’t it difficult to enforce? “We have a whole division whose sole focus is on impact and accountability,” says Evans. “Their job is to make sure every announcement made on stage is specific, measurable, time-bound and achievable. There’s often a political tactic of announcing things done in the past, or re-announcing things. We don’t allow any of that.

“We take a very realpolitik approach: we analyse pledges, we look independently at the numbers to see if the data is real. Then, once the commitment is made – because it’s such a public forum and we’ve filmed the whole thing – we make it clear that we’ll be publishing reports every six months about implementation. We have a phenomenal track record in very gently but specifically encouraging governments to follow through.”

He leans back from his computer screen, smiling what, in anyone else, would be a knowing smile. “We believe in holding world leaders’ feet to the fire.”

Hugh Jackman with Evans during the 2016 Global Citizen Festival in New York.

Hugh Jackman with Evans during the 2016 Global Citizen Festival in New York.Credit:

Global Citizen was co-founded by Evans in 2012, as part of an earlier incarnation of the same idea, the Global Poverty Project. It was the culmination of a decade of achievements after he returned from South Africa. In 2003 he founded the Oaktree Foundation (today one of Australia’s largest youth organisations); in 2004 he was Young Australian of the Year; in 2008 he completed his science/law degree at Monash University and won a scholarship to Cambridge to do a master’s degree in international relations.

Philanthropist Heloise Pratt met Evans around this time. “He was very charismatic,” she recalls. “My mother had spoken of him as a future superstar to look out for.” She became a long-term supporter – the Pratt Foundation would donate $1 million to Evans’ first Global Citizen Central Park festival in 2012 – and others who met him were equally impressed. Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard both became mentors; former World Vision CEO Tim Costello was a constant supporter; John Howard called him a young man who “spoke from the heart”.

Evans is a Christian; although he comes from a church-going family, he became a “person of faith” at 13. He describes himself as an “eager kid” but he was also a restless, driven one. “It was almost as if he had a checklist of things he wanted to do,” his mother recalls. “But he never showed a great deal of satisfaction once he’d mastered them. He has this vision of how he wants the world to be, and he’s just focused on that goal; he doesn’t always stop to enjoy the success along the way.”

Evans’ early life seems to have involved nothing but success; but there has been sadness, too. His parents divorced when he was 13 (he’s the middle child of three brothers, and has one stepsister), which he describes as a “tumultuous time”, and though he remained close to his parents, moving between their houses each week, he thinks there’s “probably some correlation between that time frame and travelling internationally by myself a lot, which started the following year”.

Does he mean he felt unhappy or dislocated at home? “More that I feel very comfortable travelling. From memory, we spent half the week at Mum’s and half at Dad’s – I felt like I was always on the move.”

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In time, his mother remarried; her new husband was the father of one of Evans’ closest friends from childhood. “Dave and I went to Deepdene Primary together; we were best friends,” he recalls. When the two boys became stepbrothers as teenagers “it was a kind of awkward time,” but their friendship remained strong: they both loved skateboarding and punk rock, and Evans remembers him as “awesome: really rambunctious and full of energy”. Tragically, the year both boys turned 17, David took his own life.

David’s death has been mentioned in old articles about Evans, as well as in his own memoir, but it’s impossible to imagine being a teenager and losing both a best mate and a brother. Can he describe its impact?

Evans leans forward towards his computer screen, arms folded on his desk, and – entirely unexpectedly for me, and perhaps for him, too – begins to cry. “It was a very, very sad time,” he says eventually. “He did certainly cry out for help at certain points, and only with the benefit of hindsight do you understand those moments for what they were. But he was an amazing, amazing guy. It was a testimony to him that when we had his funeral in Melbourne, the whole cathedral was full.”

Did his death change Evans’ path? Or perhaps make him more committed to the one he was on? “I do believe that any form of suffering forces one to take a step back and ask the bigger questions,” he says. “It gives you an appreciation of every day. And sometimes it’s hard, because when you’re exhausted, working as hard as you possibly can, you lose that appreciation. But certainly in my deeper moments of reflection I always come back to the things I’m thankful for, and the family I’m thankful for, and how that informs my true north and what I want to do next.”

John Legend at the first Global Citizen Festival in New York in 2012.

John Legend at the first Global Citizen Festival in New York in 2012.Credit:

For more than 10 years now, the true north of Evans’ life has been Global Citizen. He chose to set up in New York because of its proximity to major political and philanthropic power bases, and because of US tax concessions for advocacy organisations.

And in a decade, he’s taken the organisation from a tiny gig in a storeroom in Soho to a genuinely international organisation, that people like WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus call in moments of crisis (as he did to help spread the message of social distancing), and to which celebrities like Beyoncé, Carole King, Billie Eilish and Jay-Z regularly commit their time. Indeed, many have done so for years: Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay, has signed on to curate the Global Citizen Central Park festival till 2030.

“A lot of people said, ‘Oh, we really admire your cause, but we don’t think it’s the right fit for us.’ ”

The first Global Citizen festival was in 2012, in Central Park, headlined by Foo Fighters, The Black Keys, and Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But they nearly didn’t get Central Park; they nearly didn’t get Foo Fighters – they nearly didn’t get anything.

“You get an awful lot of polite declines when you’ve never done something before,” explains Simon Moss, the Australian co-founder and managing director of campaigns at Global Citizen. “A lot of people said, ‘Oh, we really admire your cause, but we don’t think it’s the right fit for us.’ Which is the polite version of, ‘I don’t think you guys know what the f… you’re doing.’ The whole thing was just insane – this crazy bunch of Australians no one had ever heard of. But after we’d pulled it off, all these people who’d said no suddenly said, ‘Actually…’. ”

Hugh Evans laughs when I ask him about this: the model hasn’t changed much, he admits. The Together At Home concerts, for instance, involved “a lot of calls and not very much sleep” for weeks on end. It seems almost par for the course that the events come together in short time frames, under immense pressure: the entire Together At Home special event line-up was gathered in three weeks.

Mick Sheldrick recalls having “our first call with Lady Gaga” the day before he fell sick with COVID-19 for a week (during which Evans messaged him every day to see if he could come back to work); and returning 10 days before the concert went live.

Heloise Pratt says that, in these moments of high pressure, Evans flips from being “totally normal” to “this superstar control freak, micromanaging every aspect” of events. Her ex-husband, Alex Waislitz, whose own foundation donates $250,000 a year to the Waislitz Global Citizen Awards, agrees. “He’s totally passionate, he works 24/7,” he says. “But he’s also very resilient and flexible: he finds a way to make things happen.”

Quite how he gets so many celebrities onto his band-wagon is anyone’s guess. As Kirsten Albrecht puts it, “He does have the power to get people to want to be a part of his plan.” But this isn’t just a plan to play street cricket in the quiet lanes of Kew, after all. Hugh Jackman, who met Evans when he mistook him for a waiter at a cocktail party in Canberra (“He looked so young!”), has said his appeal is based on how “every idea I’d had of how to use my profile to help make the planet a better place was trumped by [Evans’] vision, his passion and his dedication”.

Maybe it’s that simple: Evans gives celebrities the chance to use their power for good, not evil. Of course, they also earn terrific publicity for doing so, but let’s not be cynical. “Lady Gaga was on daily phone calls with our team [organising Together At Home],” says Evans. “That’s the sort of commitment artists give: she was on Zoom calls and WebEx calls, WhatsApp, literally every single day. People do genuinely care about changing the world, and if we can provide the right forum, then wonderful people are willing to put their time towards it.”

Evans with his wife, Tanyella, who runs Nabu, an organisation helping children in poverty access online libraries and literacy materials.

Evans with his wife, Tanyella, who runs Nabu, an organisation helping children in poverty access online libraries and literacy materials.Credit:

Does Hugh Evans ever switch off? Does he – can he – relax? “You’d have to ask [my wife] about that,” he says, looking slightly sheepish. (Evans met his wife, Tanyella, at Cambridge; the pair have been married for 10 years, and she runs her own non-government organisation called Nabu, helping children in poverty access online libraries and literacy materials.) “Tan and I are still able to, you know, have a wonderful life. My faith, my family, the mission – and my love of running! These are the things that help me unwind.”

Those who know him best seem to doubt this – at least the unwinding part. “It’s just constant,” says Mick Sheldrick cheerfully. “You go from one campaign right on to the next, and people are sometimes like, ‘Can we just catch our breath?’ ” He laughs. “The thing with Hugh is, there are some
people who worked with him in the early days and they’re like, ‘You’ve worked with him for so long now, aren’t you just exhausted?’ But he pushes himself harder than anyone: he wears his heart on his sleeve. The number of times I’ve seen him in tears over something. It’s all very personal to him.”

Speaking of personal: some years ago, a charity worker who’d seen a 2016 TED Talk by Evans contacted him, saying she knew Sonny Boy, and she recognised his tattoos from a picture Evans had used on stage. “I had the enormous privilege of going back to Manila to meet him,” recalls Evans. “It was so emotional. He remembered me!” He seems, even now, amazed by this. “Why should he: I was just one dude passing through. But he was in tears as well!”

Since then, Evans has helped Sonny Boy get a motor scooter rickshaw licence, buy a rickshaw, and set up a small store. “We just do that as a family thing – a personal thing,” he says. Sonny Boy, he adds, texts him most mornings: sometimes he reads the texts out to his team.

Evans at Global Citizen's New York office: “I actually believe that charity as we know it is dead. My thesis is, if it hasn’t ended poverty in the past 250 years, there’s no reason it should in the next 250."

Evans at Global Citizen’s New York office: “I actually believe that charity as we know it is dead. My thesis is, if it hasn’t ended poverty in the past 250 years, there’s no reason it should in the next 250.”Credit:Ben Sklar

As for saving the rest of the world, Evans keeps working. Thanks to COVID-19, the Sustainable Development Goals have taken a brutal hit, with some experts predicting they’ve been set back by 30 years – surely a demoralising prospect. Maybe that’s why he looks so tired, standing at his computer in the gathering New York darkness.

“No,” he says firmly. “I’m an optimist. All the data is on our side. Even though this current setback is utterly devastating for the poor, we can still eradicate poverty within our lifetime. Everything points to that. It’s not a question of can we, but will we?” He smiles. “It’s a question of will.”

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