June 22, 2011 (July/August print edition); Source: Fast Company | Celebrities involved in charity get a lot of attention pro and con — from the charitable initiatives of Madonna and Oprah in Africa to the fundraising bracelets of Lance Armstrong and Lady Gaga. The lessons learned tend to be focused on how celebrities can engage in charity on the up and up — take Kanye West's foundation that should have been able to do better than a grand total of $563 in grants in one year, for example — but what about lessons for nonprofits in how they ought to think about employing and deploying celebrities?
Some people have important experience from the nonprofit side of the equation about the when and how of celebrities. For example, a staff member who worked for the Enough Project, an anti-genocide initiative that has attracted substantial celebrity support, notes that "Celebrities are a largely cost-effective way for not-for-profits to reach a lot of eyeballs. But cost effective isn't the same as cost free. There's a staffing cost, there's an intellectual cost, there's a time cost, there's a brand-risk cost."
Fast Company offers five myths about celebrity charitable fundraising that are chock full of lessons for nonprofits:
1. "Celebrities are interchangeable — as long as you get someone famous, you're golden": It may be important to find celebrities who are committed to what your nonprofit stands for and wants to do. Sometimes, a nonprofit's cause is not the celebrity's "thing".
2. "It's impossible to have a real relationship with a star": FC says that the various publicists, managers, and agents surrounding celebs makes it seem that they are just "puppet(s) of various handlers," but with the right kind of intermediary, a nonprofit can "forge a genuine one-to-one relationship."
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3. "Celebrities aren't worth the time and effort": FC says, "celebrities are worth exactly the time and effort you invest in them. More will get you more."
4. "Celebrities are airheads: Beware any ideas they offer!": The experts say that artists are artists, they aren't necessarily policy wonks, but "they may have a unique way of looking at something and crystallizing it in a way that a policy wonk couldn't."
5. "Without training, celebrities are show ponies who make a mess when hauled out in public": Fast Company says that not every celebrity is going to turn out like Sean Penn or George Clooney who virtually inhale and digest policy stuff like the best of the wonks. But the FC experts suggest that you can give celebrities "materials that are digestible, that will help them understand the policy depths of you're working on without drowning them."
The bonus tip that Fast Company offers is that celebrities frequently enjoy promoting policy issues or raising donations on behalf of nonprofits. But you have to do good due diligence, "starting with that initial Google search of your prospective celebrity's name followed by any or all of the following words and phrases: gaffe, crack-up, arrest, rehab, nipple slip, apologizes, erratic, sex tape, court, mug shot, fail, Sheen." Especially Sheen.—Rick Cohen