So You’re Considering a Celebrity Endorsement?

The instant recognition that accompanies having a celebrity’s name associated with your nonprofit, either in the title or on your board, may sound appealing – but be careful. Celebrity is the epitome of a double-edged sword. Some of the drawbacks are obvious, some less so. On the plus-side, of course, is increased visibility which can often open up doors to new donors.

Before Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt made philanthropy sexy, many so-called “stars” leveraged their celebrity status to bring causes into our consciousness: think of Bob HopeJerry Lewis, and Danny Thomas, to name a few. These men did not simply furnish a photo and a signature – they became ambassadors for the charities that they supported. A more recent example would be The Michael J. Fox Foundation, named for the actor whose very public battle with Parkinson’s disease has inspired donations totaling over $250 million to date for medical trials, research, improved therapies and, most importantly, an increased awareness of the disease.

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Today, it seems that every celebrity is associated with at least one charitable organization. Just for fun, look up your favorite film star’s affiliations on the website Look to the Stars. However, be prepared to skim through a list of 2,780 “celebrity” philanthropists, most of whom you have never even heard of. Which leads to the first line of questioning: How widely-known IS the celebrity in question? Are they known to the circles that revolve around your nonprofit, i.e. your donors, staff, and clients? Do their profession and body of work reflect well upon your organization? And, most significantly, does the celebrity know, understand and believe in your organization? Are they willing to support your cause in both their words and actions? That’s a lot to ask of anyone, but you have the right to ask it. Not only is your organization’s reputation on the line, but your ongoing ability to help people and change lives may be at stake.

Of course we are all human and even the biggest of stars is apt to make mistakes; in fact, some might argue that the larger the ego, the more likely that is to happen. Certainly, any ‘faux pas’ on the part of a celebrity will receive more public scrutiny than if someone lesser-known had committed it. Tiger Woods comes immediately to mind. So determine early on how closely aligned you want your organization to be with one particular celebrity. Talk with your board members about potential doomsday scenarios, and discuss in advance the measures you would take to counteract them. Having a ready response, where all players are on the same page, will minimize any potential damage and take the ‘wind of surprise’ out of the media’s sails.

One often-overlooked downside to celebrity endorsement is the automatic assumption that, as a result, your organization really doesn’t need additional funding! This is the trap that The Amobi Okoye Foundation fell into, when it first approached foundations to help fund its Kickoff4Kids Sports Camp at Jack Yates High School in Houston, a school that traditionally struggles with high drop- out rates. Originally conceived of by the former Houston Texans defensive tackle (currently defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears), the real purpose of the camp is not athletics; instead, the camp’s core message is education. While participating in skills-based activities geared for all levels of fitness and ability, the children learn from Amobi and other NFL players that a well-rounded education is an asset, both on and off the field. With a high demand for camp scholarships and fixed costs to cover, how did the Foundation attract the necessary funding? The answer is, by capitalizing upon its founder’s football relationships to obtain an in-kind donation of sports equipment from Nike SPARQ™. That donation became the cornerstone of fundraising efforts for Kickoff4Kids, which is entering its 5th season this year.

In the end, compatibility really should be the chief factor to consider when seeking a celebrity’s endorsement. An obvious link should exist between the person you choose, and your nonprofit’s mission.

Special Note: “Eye on Third Ward,” an annual exhibit of photographs taken by Jack Yates High School students, will be on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston from February 5 to May 28, 2012.

Richard Beeman