Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Sep/Oct 2015, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
In 2014, Miley Cyrus, on her own, reached out to My Friend’s Place, a center for homeless youth in Hollywood. She embraced their work and subsequently did several things to increase visibility for the cause and to raise much-needed funds for the organization, including reaching almost 14 million viewers by bringing one of the young people from the center to accept her award at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2014. Also in 2014, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen worked with Operation Help or Hush to pay for food trucks to feed hundreds of New Yorkers protesting the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, generating a lot of media attention. This is on top of John Legend’s op-ed in Billboard Magazine in support of the protests and the ways that he and Common have used the platform provided by the movie Selma and their hit song “Glory.” Celebrity attention elevated the awareness of the general public and boosted the mass appeal of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Celebrities are a special category of people. I’m not talking about wealthy donors or those who are famous within nonprofit and activist circles. I’m talking about TV and movie stars, musicians that have sold 20 million albums worldwide, people with over one million Twitter followers, and those who grace the pages of popular magazines and TMZ.com. Celebrity culture is a huge part of our lives, affecting our media and news, our opinions and impressions, and how we spend our time and money.
It’s no wonder that many nonprofits are looking to capitalize on big-name endorsements. Groups hope that the seal of approval from a celebrity will result in large-dollar donations, hundreds of new supporters, and positive media coverage. But how do you get a share of the limited attention? Add the fact that you may be a small nonprofit without national name recognition, possibly working on controversial issues in communities that are invisible to or negatively portrayed by mainstream media. You have your work cut out for you.
Rather than waiting around hoping for a celebrity to take up your cause, there are ways to proactively cultivate celebrity involvement. However, it isn’t easy, and not all organizations are well-positioned to take on the special circumstances celebrities bring with them. Before you even pursue this as a fundraising strategy, here are some key questions to ask your organization:
- What do we plan to get out of it? How will it help us?
- Do we have the right contacts, staff capacity, and communications savvy to take advantage of what we hope the celebrity will bring?
- Given all the time and issues that come hand-in-hand with celebrity endorsements, is it worth it? Is there a better way to get what we’re looking for?
To help make sure your expectations are realistic, see the sidebar of top tips from a former executive of the Entertainment Industry Foundation.
Top Tips for Working With Celebrities
Carol Ramsey, retired vice president of philanthropic services for the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), offers some tips and caveats for engaging celebrities. What might appear to be a savvy shortcut to greater visibility and funding isn’t always right for our organizations.
- Make sure you can handle it. If you don’t already have a robust donor program and communications strategy, it’s hard to fully capitalize on a celebrity’s involvement in your cause. Before you invest time and money in celebrities, first invest in strengthening your organization’s fundraising and communications programs.
- There is no magic list. Nonprofit leaders regularly ask EIF for a ready-made list of celebrities interested in working with nonprofits. It doesn’t exist. You can, however, use the same tools EIF uses: IMDbPro, WhoRepresents.com, and looktothestars.org.
- Think like a talent manager. It’s the manager’s job to find the most lucrative opportunities for their clients, so don’t be surprised to find the celebrity you booked months in advance for your event backs out at the last minute. What interests the manager, second to money, is visibility. So, if you can guarantee hundreds of thousands of eyes on them, that could be appealing, especially for someone who is trying to get back into the limelight.
- They could end up costing, rather than earning you money. While the celebrity might agree to make an appearance at your event or record your PSA for free, you might end up paying for their transportation, their stylist, or other needs. And don’t always expect them to make a gift of their own funds. Many give very little of their own money and instead appeal to their fans to support a select cause.
- Be creative. Seek easy ways for celebrities to support your cause: They can show up at an event, accept an award, walk through the room of a VIP reception, or donate signed items to an auction. They can provide a photo and quote for use in a fundraising appeal. If you want them to support your work on social media, be sure to provide their staff with exact language to be used for tweets and posts. But, remember: Do your homework! Be sure to get all the approval and clearances required by contract or arrangement with the celebrity’s publicist or management.
Most of all, keep your expectations low. When you finally do attract the interest of a celebrity, it can feel like doors will open magically. But even though many of them are compassionate and would like to do more, the reality is they are not in control of their time. So, try your best, be nice to their publicist, and don’t neglect your other donors!
I spoke with leaders from two organizations in Los Angeles, where celebrity culture is as ubiquitous as sunshine and palm trees. Both groups serve largely neglected low-income communities of color and have lessons to share on how they have been able to successfully engage celebrities. To maintain their anonymity, I will call one Keep Kids in School (KKS) and the other Healing Through Sports (HTS).
After 20 years of hosting its annual gala, KKS decided a few years ago that it needed to take it to the next level by creating a more dynamic and appealing event with greater money-making potential. While the annual gala always honored civic and business leaders, it decided to add a new category of honorees focused on entertainment industry professionals and celebrities. This decision was based on some important investments that KKS had already made—namely, building a 20-year reputation of doing good work and successfully recruiting board members from the broader entertainment industry.
Because HTS focuses on providing low-income children access to high-end sports, HTS already had a history of brushing shoulders with wealthy families they would meet in their programs. But HTS largely operated as a grassroots organization on a shoestring budget that relied on volunteer time and mostly in-kind donations. The wealthy families they knew enjoyed being able to provide in-kind equipment and other opportunities for the children, but had not given much in terms of direct dollars. When HTS made the decision to establish itself as a full-fledged nonprofit with full-time staffing, they also decided to deepen their engagement with celebrities. They have two celebrities who are actively involved in their annual gala and who also help broker partnerships.
Lesson #1: Know someone who knows someone.
KKS and HTS shared that their celebrity contacts were introduced to their respective organizations by someone who both knew the celebrity personally and had a direct connection to the organization—mainly current board members, committee members or donors. It is difficult to bridge more than two degrees of separation. “No celebrity comes on their own free will. They come because board members put in the energy to leverage their existing personal connections,” commented KKS staff. These people who serve as valuable connectors often work in high-profile industries or companies, but are not celebrities themselves. Build relationships with people who travel in the circles you are interested in, and inspire them to take on a formal role in the organization. Engage them first, and then give them a reason to tell their famous friends.
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Be aware that even if your board member is a personal friend of a desired celebrity, securing their participation takes time. If you’re seeking a celebrity for a specific event, KKS recommends starting early. Celebrity schedules fill up fast, and they (or their manager or publicist) may be too busy to respond in a timely way to last-minute requests for approval of promotional materials for an event, including providing pre-approved photographs. KKS be-gins reaching out to their honorees nine months before the event and tries to take care of all the details well in advance of the event.
Lesson #2: Give them a chance to see your work in action.
KKS and HTS benefit from running the kinds of programs that someone can visit and see the impact on the organization’s constituents firsthand. Both groups cited this as being critical to engaging celebrities. They don’t want to read reports or proposals about your work, passively browse websites, or visit an office building. Having the opportunity to see the program in action is much more compelling. While this is often easier for direct services programs, especially those involving children and young people, it doesn’t mean that policy and organizing groups can’t do this as well. Advocacy workshops, forums or listening sessions, neighborhood tours, and community-building activities can be used to help bring your work to life.
Even better, create a one-time volunteer project for the celebrity to engage directly with constituents—and don’t forget the photo op! This is a great way to motivate them to share something authentic and personal about your work over social media. Remember that the celebrity has to feel like they are getting something out of this partnership to make it worth their limited time, and having a great photo to share with their fans is one thing a nonprofit can provide. If you are securing the celebrity for an event, have them do the project in advance. This will make any speech much more heartfelt and may reduce the chance of last-minute no-shows.
Lesson #3: Different celebrities bring different things.
The first thing most fundraisers are interested in is the dollars. KKS and HTS shared that while the amount a celebrity can bring in greatly varies, they have found the low end to be $20,000 a year and the high end $100,000 and up. This includes direct gifts from the celebrity, event tickets or sponsorships bought by friends and colleagues of the celebrity, and donated auction items that raise additional dollars. HTS shared that one of their celebrity supporters gives very little of his own money but the “dinner for eight at his house” auction item is a popular prize for which others are willing to shell out big bucks. KKS commented that raising less than $10,000 via a celebrity at their gala would make them question whether the time and effort to secure and engage the celebrity was worth it.
Second to dollars is in-kind support. Each organization’s top celebrity supporters have brokered partnerships with businesses and other organizations for volunteers, facility upgrades, equipment donations, free entry to events, and free marketing such as exhibitor tables at events and placements in publications. Lastly, celebrities also bring greater visibility, especially through social media. KKS said they experienced a 15 percent jump in Facebook “likes” after a social media push by a celebrity, although the jury is still out on what kind of impact that will have on fundraising. When they secure a celebrity honoree for their annual gala, they ask the honoree to tweet (KKS provides sample language), to email an event invitation to their contacts (KKS provides a well-designed invitation they can simply forward), to stay at the event for at least one hour to network and mingle, and to make an acceptance speech at the event.
Lesson #4: Not everyone will stick around.
Both KKS and HTS have received support from multiple celebrities, and many of them have motivated their friends and fans to give as well. But only a small handful remain consistent supporters year after year. Just as fame is notoriously short-lived, so are people’s attention spans. “Some people just bounce around from cause to cause, maybe they have another friend they want to help out. We have to let them go—but it still feels disappointing,” shared HTS staff. Rather than stress yourself out trying to retain all these one-time supporters, focus on a smaller number who have indicated a possible deeper interest in your organization’s mission and work. Do your best to stay in touch with the celebrity—and their manager and publicist—by sharing updates, pictures and short videos.
One possible way to keep them involved is by inviting them to join your board of directors or an advisory board. Both KKS and HTS were able to recruit one of their top celebrity supporters to join their respective boards. Before offering them a seat, make sure that the celebrity feels truly committed to the organization’s mission and has valuable ideas for how they might contribute. Keep in mind that a celebrity board member will not likely participate in the same way as the rest of your board members, so make sure the board is okay with that. Both organizations reported that the celebrities on their boards have much less time to give and may be unavailable for long stretches of time. They also rarely come to meetings, and they often don’t provide the required level of stewardship and governance. But they make time to meet one-on-one to stay engaged, they participate in raising money, and they help open doors to other donors and partnerships.
As community-based organizations working for social justice, some of us may have concerns that going the celebrity route does not align with our values. While plenty of organizations with integrity have worked with celebrities, it is not the right strategy for everyone—so trust your instincts. But make sure you have thought it through before counting out your organization. Below are some common reasons grassroots organizations give for not wanting to engage celebrities, followed by my response to each.
We don’t work in a “feel good” community or on “feel good” issues. Every issue and community has a “feel good” side, and most people, celebrities or not, want to be associated with the positive. Highlighting the positivity in your work doesn’t have to be about treating a serious issue flippantly or exploiting the community you serve. It’s about honoring the humanity of the people you work with, engendering hope in all who are involved, and showing the impact of supporting your work.
We don’t want to change what we do to accommodate the celebrity. Some celebrities want to maintain a low profile and interact with your organization like any other donor or supporter, which doesn’t require you to make any changes. But if you are serious about engaging them more deeply, you will likely need to make accommodations, such as the different expectations for celebrity board members mentioned earlier. Given that they leverage their celebrity supporters at their annual galas, KKS and HTS admitted that they have modified their events to better ac-commodate a wealthier and higher-profile clientele. This may include finding a nicer venue, offering a “red carpet” experience, and making sure that event spaces are equipped with Wi-Fi for easier social media activity. But neither of them expressed regret at investing time in creating a more high-end experience—and sometimes the added costs have been minimal.
We aren’t sure we want to be aligned with them. Celebrities are people and, while they may be supportive of your cause, it doesn’t mean that everything they say or do will be aligned with your organization. And when there is a misstep, the downside to high visibility becomes obvious. KKS shared that one of their early celebrity honorees brought in a lot of fundraising dollars, but didn’t make for a great spokesperson when he showed up for his acceptance speech intoxicated. If you’re concerned about total alignment between the celebrity and everything your organization stands for, this strategy might not be right for you. ■