Cause Celeb: Giving Charities and Non-Profits Star Power Through Social Media

Celebrities and causes already make strange bedfellows – but when social media is the bed, it gets even more complicated. How much would you pay a Top 20 music artist for a tweet? What kind of endorsement video would you ask an Academy Award-winning actor to upload to YouTube? Charitable organizations have been leveraging star power for decades, but social media has certainly changed the rules of engagement.

First, let’s decode why celebrities are so attractive to charities and non-profits. Celebrities are the original influencers and tastemakers, adored by so many that their likes and dislikes are often adopted by a critical mass. Furthermore, their messages receive high-profile exposure. Celebrities are equipped with “the power to promote whatever they support to millions of people through talk shows, weekly magazines, and ever-growing social media followings,” observes Laura Giangiulio in her Huffington Post article entitled Courting Hollywood: Building Successful Celebrity-Cause Partnerships.

Tapping a huge fanbase to spread a message of goodwill is a no-brainer. But a deeper look into how to properly leverage star power reveals the multitude of risks and complications.

What’s in a Name?

In other words: what do you define as a “celebrity?” Simply put, a celebrity is someone famous. Our brains (and Google Search, apparently) tend to default to pop culture when we think of famous people: the actors, musicians, athletes, and socialites that frequent the covers of gossip rags. However, the proliferation of online communities has raised a new class of celebrity: the Internet celebrity. These are people who have achieved fame with a large community of people through any number of online media, from blogs to Twitter. When aligning your cause with a celebrity, “You may want to consider partnering with an online celebrity, particularly one who champions a very powerful grassroots movement,” suggests Kate Olsen and Geoff Livingston in their online paper Cause Marketing Through Social Media,  “the network they bring is even more valuable than their brand name.”

Understand the risks.

Celebrity endorsements are expensive, and often force non-profits with limited budgets to put all their eggs in one basket. But what about when a charity puts all their faith in a single person and that person ends up being unreliable? There are a few undesirable outcomes: for one, the celebrity could fail to deliver on his/her promise. Probably the least desirable outcome is that the celebrity fall from grace: a cheating scandal, a substance addiction, a lapse in sanity – these are all major threats to your organization. Celebrities, whether they’re in entertainment or another industry, come with context. “You have to be ready for anything,” Malaria No More’s Erica Lichtenberger says in a 2011 Mashable article, “You’re sort of in a backseat position.” Before investing in a celebrity spokesperson, an extensive amount of research needs to be conducted. Is the celebrity often spotted at wild parties? Has the celebrity said something offensive or inappropriate in the past? Does the celebrity have a negative reputation?

Send the Right Message

Back in March, MTV’s Senior Director of Public Affairs, Noopur Agarwal, moderated a SXSWi panel entitled “Celebs & Causes: A Thin Line btwn #winning & #fail,” wich began with an audit of several high-profile charity campaigns involving celebrities. One of the most memorable efforts in the past few years was the 2010 World AIDS Day “Digital Death” campaign, in which Alicia Keys, Kim Kardashian, and a number of other stars went silent on social media until the Keep a Child Alive organization reached $1 million in donations. While the campaign did indeed leverage fan dependence on social media for celebrity engagement to reach the intended milestone, Agarwal pointed out that the approach could have had more impact. “Social Media is how celebrities reach people and spread messages,” Agarwal explains, “therefore, celebrities going silent may not have been an effective way to raise awareness for an issue.”

Who’s doing it right?

Okay, so you’ve taken all the necessary precautions – and you’re still convinced that hiring a celebrity spokesperson fits in with your cause strategy. Now let’s take a look at who’s succeeded so far, and what we can learn from their approaches.

Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project

This campaign demonstrates the effectiveness of social media for social good. It took a simple, yet powerful message (“It gets better.”) and unfolded it into over 40,000 deeply personal, honest, and moving stories of empathy and support for the world’s LGBT youth in the face of harassment. Everyone from President Barack Obama, to entertainers such as Anne Hathaway and Colin Farrell, to major corporations such as Google and Facebook, have contributed online videos to the It Gets Better movement. To a struggling youth experiencing loneliness and self-defeat, the videos represent a vast and powerful network of positivity and support from people they admire, and people just like them.

Angelina Jolie, Goodwill Ambassador

The best thing that can happen from recruiting celebrity support is that she devotes her entire life to serving your cause, as is the case with Angelina Jolie and the UN. As a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Goodwill Ambassador, Jolie has dedicated her on-screen and off-screen life to solving global human rights issues. From her high-profile (and often photographed) visits to war-torn countries, to her lead role in Beyond Borders, to her directorial debut in the gruesome In the Land of Blood and Honey, Jolie has become the universal poster girl for survivors of political conflict and natural disasters. Her infamous family with fellow A-Lister Brad Pitt has also become symbolic of her humanitarian work: oldest son Maddox was adopted from Cambodia, Zahara was adopted from Ethiopia, and Pax was adopted from Vietnam.

Lady Gaga for the MAC AIDS Fund

Live with passion. Love with protection. This is the message from Lady Gaga on behalf of the MAC AIDS Fund, helping contribute to the more than $202 million raised to support HIV/AIDS programs around the world. Charities don’t choose Lady Gaga; Lady Gaga chooses them, with laser-like precision. Known for having one of the most focused personal brands among celebrities, Lady Gaga has dedicated her enormous popularity to gender and sexuality issues. The special-edition lipsticks represent Lady Gaga’s influence as a fashion tastemaker, but are also meant to empower women to think before they have unprotected sex. Every cent from a purchase of Lady Gaga’s Viva Glam lipstick and lipglass goes directly to the MAC AIDS Fund.

What’s TwitChange?

One of the most remarkable things about Twitter is that not only can users follow real-time updates from their favorite celebrities, but that users can also interact with the stars. The excitement of getting a mention from teen heartthrob Justin Bieber, or getting a retweet from basketball legend Shaquille O’Neill is almost exciting as a real-life sighting.

Twitchange is the much-debated platform that “brings together celebrities, fans, and brands for social good.” Celebrities auction off their attention in the form of a follow. Fans bid to have the celebrity follow them, and the proceeds from the auction go to the celebrity’s charity of choice. The first-ever celebrity Twitter auction was able to raise over $500,000 for Doctors Without Borders, with the help of Eva Longoria and over 100 other celebrities, including Kim Kardashian, Demi Moore, Ryan Seacrest, and Demi Lovato. You can read more about the campaign here.

What about KONY?

During Noopur Agarwal’s SXSWi panel, it was only a matter of time before the viral sensation of the KONY 2012 movie was mentioned. KONY 2012 is an excellent case study on something we here at Big Fuel have made the core of our business: that great content drives action.

One audience member asked, in light of KONY’s stunning power to drive an enthusiastic youth movement, if the effect can be replicated. Panelist Kenna Zemedkun, musician and philanthropist, replied:

“Models are built by innovators and copied by everyone else. If you do something because it means something to you, because it matters, because it resonates with your spirit, it will be successful. Remember that #KONY2012 took 9 years. They poured their heart and soul into it for 9 years. That’s passion & authenticity.”

For more information on celebrity alignments with charities, check out http://www.looktothestars.org/category.

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  2. 05/14 2012

    Celebrity endorsements are the boon and bane of internet marketing. What you are really getting is access to their data base of names (often 100’s of thousands). Along with that comes the baggage of their life and career, not always a great trade off. Probably of highest importance; Does your brand message align with the celeb platform and their career? Lady Gaga probably works for Aids rights or Teen oriented product and service BUT certainly not Chevy cars! Celebs that are actively involved in their charity, giving of their time and resources are usually a good bet to link up with and get them to support your brand, if it has the same or an affinity message

  3. Kim Reyes
    05/16 2012

    Thanks for your insight, Jay! I totally agree with you. Celebrities are brands themselves: they have a brand persona, a brand story, and messaging. These components need to correlate with your cause and your objectives in order for the celebrity endorsement to be effective. The last thing a cause or charity needs is to lose credibility.

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