Celebrity Supporters Can Bring Visibility to Charities — but Careful Screening Is Crucial

Celebrities and charities can make a productive marriage — with the famous satisfying their desire to help society (and perhaps burnishing their public images at the same time) and the organizations enjoying greater visibility and often an increase in donations. But when the parties are mismatched, the pairings can also result in splits as acrimonious as any high-profile Hollywood divorce — with potential hazards for charities that have pinned too many of their hopes on a star.

Public figures, say charity managers and fund raisers, are particularly good at drawing attention to an organization’s mission and giving a boost to fund-raising efforts. But nonprofit leaders still advocate screening celebrities carefully to make sure their aims and those of a charity overlap, and clearly communicating both parties’ expectations.

Many public figures want to share their good fortune with worthy organizations. A lot of celebrities are good people, they have good hearts and good souls.

An example, several popular young singers, including Alicia Keys and Gwen Stefani, organized a remake of the Marvin Gaye song “What’s Going On,” which was eventually released to benefit several organizations. It was really impressive to see how blessed they felt they were for having been given the gift of celebrity. It helped them cope with their celebrity status for having received the wealth they have received. These are people who want to use music to change the world

Elton John Oscar Party

That’s a more idealistic view.

The Personal Touch

Celebrity involvement often takes the form of public-service announcements or the occasional personal appearance to help a fund-raising event attract more people and garner more news coverage. For some organizations, that is all the lift they need.

You should alway plans something special for Special Events. You not only want a top-notch performer, but you want to get them to spend a little time with the donors and volunteers. If they can really engage beyond what they do on stage, that’s an asset to any organization.

Have them attend a reception, then perform, before or after dinner. After the performance, the celebrities posed for photos with major donors. Often, it is in that post-performance schmoozing that is most beneficial to the charity. The celebrity is able to have a positive impact if they spent time with attendees to talk to them after each photo. It is very real and very generous. The celebrity always kept exclaiming how excited they were about the mission. The celebrity really saw what was happening and was eager to support it.

We believe that the celebrity personal touch will help strengthen the relationship with its supporters for the future. It’s not always the immediate that’s apparent. With the photos, the conversations, make a long-term impression with the donors. It’s just another reason to enjoy coming to the office.

When celebrities make personal connections to their charities, their commitment deepens beyond a general wish to do good. Their working-class roots or religion can enhance their desire to help. During the corporate tour, they should met the group’s executive director that can lead to a kinship and bonding with their clients from the beginning. They may really appreciate the people there by striking up friendships with several of the employees, and they look forward to seeing each other.

Preparing Stars to Shine

No matter how strongly a public figure believes in a charity’s mission, it’s vital to prepare them for their inevitable role as the group’s public supporter.

The media turns out when you have celebrity participation. It becomes your job, when there’s a celebrity who might get targeted by the media, to make sure they have the knowledge that they need. Failing to do so can cause embarrassment — for the celebrity, who may look foolish or naive in front of the press, and for the organization, which can be trivialized or misrepresented.

When prepping famous supporters, give them its mission statement, and offers them a “sound bite” or one-line summary of the organization’s work that they can repeat to the press.

We also work hard to identify one or two standout accomplishments that are easy for people to remember. There’s no need to weigh them down with data: Bear in mind that celebrities and their talent for communication can be a great asset, and that the media is often only looking for one or two quick statements about what you do and how successful you are.

In addition, celebrities take corporate tours to learn about its programs firsthand. While the organization does not have a single designated celebrity spokesperson, it has been the recipient of a broad range of participation from famous supporters in both its programming and fund-raising efforts — and that helps when dealing with the news media. Where possible, you want people to be able to speak about their own impressions and time spent with you.

Telling celebrity supporters about an organization’s work is important, but as public figures find out about the charity, the charity should also gauge their willingness to commit both time and money to the cause to help celebrities set up charitable foundations.

The best way for a charitable organization to get the maximum benefit from their relationships with celebrities is to inform the would-be supporters, as clearly and simply as possible, what will be expected of them. They’re pulled in a million different directions, and focus is a problem.

One way to determine a celebrity’s long-term commitment lies in the bottom line. It’s absolutely critical that celebrities donate money. Why should I, as someone who makes hundreds of times less, donate if they don’t? Sure, their time is important, but the public might well say, “If you won’t put up a dollar of your money, why should I?” Yes, their time is valuable, but the fact that they are celebrities is what enables their time to be valuable. Giving shows a stronger commitment.

Despite this recommendation, many charities do not require monetary donations from their celebrity supporters. As with non celebrities, a strong financial commitment to a cause usually accompanies in-depth involvement. But in the case of famous people, one-time associations are often likely to result in the celebrities receiving honoraria of their own with a donation to the celebrity’s foundation.

Some organizations are so in need of visibility — and grateful for celebrity help — that they shy away from also requesting donations. It can be such an ordeal, in terms of scheduling, to get them to participate in different kinds of things that take a back seat. Perhaps you’re a small, poorly funded nonprofit doing advocacy. Certainly, we could all benefit from more money. But you have to be careful about not over asking including requests for financial aid.

Avoiding Controversy

Having a famous supporter onboard can give a nonprofit group wide visibility. However, that spotlight can grow uncomfortably hot if the celebrity becomes embroiled in a public controversy or personal scandal. And even the most wholesome of public figures may become burdensome to a charity if they lack commitment — or bring unreasonable demands.

Careful screening has helped prevent some charities from entering into relationships with troubled celebrities. United Way of America, for example, has for 30 years been served by supporters who play in the National Football League — an organization that, despite its members’ popularity, has in recent years seen some of its athletes embroiled in substance abuse, and accused of domestic violence and even murder. However, the charity has not been tarnished by some football players’ brushes with the law because the league does its own careful choosing of its representatives. To be recruited by the league and the teams for United Way work, the players need to be model citizens who believe in and exemplify through their citizenship the type of message that we’re trying to deliver through the campaign.

Without a group like the National Football League to pick the most likely prospects from its own ranks, however, the process becomes akin to hiring a staff member. You need to talk to a wide spectrum of people and really need to do a thorough background check.

There are a few basic “red flags” to heed. It’s common sense that if someone is not getting back to you in a timely manner, that’s a good indication of how business is going to go. If they’re uncomfortable talking about their own charitable commitments, that would also be a red flag, because if they’re noncommittal about where they’re donating their own money, it would indicate that they’re not really giving.

Even well-intentioned celebrities can become so high-maintenance that their demands outweigh the benefits of their support. The need to make both sides’ expectations clear at the outset. Up front, ask what they would be looking for in return, are they expecting travel expenses for themselves, a significant other, a whole entourage? If they need first-class accommodations for a dozen people, it’s a real test of their commitment to you. And if you get more involved with them later on, it’s just going to get worse, not better. And if you’re trying to raise money, it can cut into that.

Some non-profits has seen first-hand the trouble that can come from dealing with the associates of celebrities being sued for activities of a fund trustee, lawyer, the stars, former employers, for claims that they sabotaged the relationship with the entertainers and suggestion that they hire a friend of the entertainer as a fund raiser even though they had no experience in the field.

Non-profit charities have learned over the years that philanthropy needs to be treated like a business, and you’ve got to know who you are working with, whether the people you are hiring or doing business with are celebrities or not.

Another pitfall for the relationship between public figures and charities can come when an artist’s marketability stands at odds with a charity’s message. The Global AIDS Alliance’s “What’s Going On” project has originally been intended as a campaign solely to benefit international groups that fight the disease. But when, after September 11, record companies and others feared its AIDS message would be irrelevant in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the song was released to benefit the September 11th Fund as well.

However, some artists who were involved in the project when it was intended to benefit AIDS charities were upset that the money generated would now be split with another cause. And other artists feared that the song’s antiwar lyrics would trigger a backlash among fans eager to retaliate for the terror attacks. The artists might have been antiwar, but their audiences at that time might not have been. The controversies, he says, hurt both the song’s fund-raising efficacy and its anti-AIDS educational message.

People who are involved in celebrity, advocacy, and cause-related work, monitor what’s being said about them, and if they get a negative response from their audience, they modify their advocacy. Their power is only in their ability to maintain a following. If they don’t have people buying their CDs, they don’t have a way of helping any cause. They won’t do anything to compromise it.

Advocacy is a risk for people. The primary objective is to sell records. They are marketers. If they try to integrate the marketing of their cause, and if there’s some kind of push-back, they might retreat, they might modify how they relate to the cause.

A key point of any long-term association, understand celebrities who are not fully committed to a charity’s mission may lend their support only until it becomes inconvenient for them. An organization needs to figure out from the start why famous people are willing to help.

Is there a personal connection, do they really believe in it to the very core of their being, or is it a way for them to get publicity? Because if it’s the last one, it’s never going to work out. Once the need for publicity runs out, they’re going to be gone.