Public Relations Firm Says It Was Hired To Promote A Celebrity-Studded Philanthropy Conference “Built On Lies”

[This story is developing and may be updated.]

A virtual summit on philanthropy is advertising a star-studded event that will feature celebrities like George and Amal Clooney, Charlize Theron, Stephen and Ayesha Curry among others as attendees. But that was not true, according to a public relations firm that was hired to promote the event. 

Thrive Philanthropy, a small consulting firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, has sent out splashy emails inviting journalists and others to attend a two day virtual Connect Summit, described on its website as an effort to connect humanitarians, advocates, and advocates to “educate, enlighten and engage on the most crucial and urgent global issues.”  Early bird tickets to the June 23-24 event are being offered for $399 a pop; some tickets are on sale for as much as $1,799. On Thursday afternoon, the event’s website was still selling tickets.

But Dara Kaplan, president of public relations agency Wunderlich Kaplan, which was hired to promote the conference, said in an email Thursday morning that the agency learned that the celebrities were not booked to attend and that the event information was “fraudulent.”  As a result, the agency has dropped Thrive Philanthropy and its founder, Stephanie Lapensee, as a client. 

“While something like this has never happened at our agency of over 20 years, it seems that we were hired to launch a conference that was built on lies,”  Kaplan wrote. “Regrettably, due to fraudulent information provided to us by our client Stephanie Lapensee the founder of Thrive Philanthropy, the creator of the Connect Summit, our agency, Wunderlich Kaplan Communications no longer represents this project.” 

George Clooney said in a statement to Forbes: “There are ads running claiming that Amal and I will be participating in the Thrive Philanthropy’s Connect Summit. We Have never heard of this summit and have never been approached to be part of a charity that is charging $399.00 for people to participate. When we contacted the company in charge they said it was a mistake and would take our names off. I then asked them who else on the list of people in the ad will not be participating. They told us Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively. They didn’t respond about Charlize Theron. We don’t know whether this charity is what it says it is and was just duped by a booking agency or whether there is something more nefarious involved. The best antiseptic is sunlight, and in the interest of protecting the public and the many important charitable organisations we hope that this situation will be rigorously investigated.”

A representative for Ryan Reynolds said to Forbes that he and Lively “were not aware of this event or confirmed to participate.” Stephen and Ayesha Curry, through a spokesperson, have also said that they “were never a part of this event.”

Charlize Theron has not responded to requests for comment.

Kaplan adds: “We are horrified about the situation and will be working diligently to make sure that all information put out there is corrected. Thank you for your understanding. It’s all pretty unbelievable as we still have not heard back from Ms. Lapensee.” 

Lapensee is the CEO and chief strategist for Thrive Philanthropy, which organized the summit. Thrive Philanthropy, founded in August 2018, has varying definitions for what it does. Connect Summit’s event website states that Thrive Philanthropy is an organization that “is a trusted advisor to charitable organizations, philanthropists, and world leaders.” The event e-mail boasts that Thrive Philanthropy is “the world’s leading philanthropy organization.” 

The website for Thrive Philanthropy, meanwhile, calls itself a boutique consulting firm. 

According to her LinkedIn profile, Lapensee also recently cofounded Spotlight, an educational platform “created to celebrate successes and failures of non-profit organizations, social enterprises, philanthropists and impact driven corporations.” Prior to Thrive Philanthropy and Spotlight, she writes that she was CEO of CauseMix and S&L Consulting. Forbes was unable to independently verify the existence of any of these organizations.

Thrive Philanthropy and Lapensee have not responded to a request for comment.

PR agent Kaplan says she found out the event was potentially fraudulent when a publicist who represented one of the celebrities reached out to her asking why her client was involved. “It’s just the weirdest thing,” she tells Forbes. “I’ve never come in contact with anything like this in my professional career.” 

Connect Summit also claims to have David Simas, the CEO of the Obama Foundation, and Dr. Rajiv Shah, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, as participants in its panels, among others. Lisa Hamilton, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is also listed on a panel, though the photo used for her appears to be a stock image of a man holding a microphone. Their representatives have not responded to requests for comment.

Others speakers the website claimed to have include Peter Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett and his wife Jennifer. His foundation, the NoVo Foundation, has not responded to a request for comment. The Buffetts’ last name is misspelled on Connect Summit’s website.

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