Can Your Nonprofit Benefit from a Celebrity Endorsement?

May 29, 2009

Several years ago I participated, along with board and staff of the organization I was working with, in the Benevon training.

They’re the organization formerly known as Raising More Money who have taken the idea of small, intimate prospective donor get-togethers and individual giving and parlayed it into a program touted as the “be all and end all” of sustainable funding.

It is a marvelous program in many ways, teaching organizations how to develop their own story, how to cultivate donors using the “6 degrees of separation” method and how to structure a series of small events into one major “ask event.”

At one point, though, one of the participants asked a question about how best to approach a celebrity with a superficial relationship to one of the board members.  I don’t recall the exact answer, but I do recall that the question wasn’t answered to the asker’s (or my) satisfaction.

So, when the question of how best to approach a luminary came up this past week on CharityChannel, I was most impressed by the oh-so succinct and extremely helpful answer penned by Tara Kelly, a Los Angeles consultant who has had much experience in dealing with celebs.

Tara has graciously given her permission to post her response in its entirety.  For any nonprofit org looking to benefit from the pull of a celebrity sponsorship, her words of wisdom are sure to help:

“Hi there.  Here in Los Angeles, the land of luminaries, I actually have a fair amount of experience with this, both as a former board member of a prominent national foundation, as well as my work in consulting some local foundations that have wonderful connections.  In LA, hosting a fundraising event without any good celebs on the list is basically a no-no — folks expect to see celebs supporting your cause,and there is a commonplace and sometimes frustrating dance that goes on to solicit them for events, let alone for whole-hog support of an organization.

 My best answer to all your questions is to ask the luminary what he/she is willing to do, and look at the first conversation as just that, the beginning of the dialogue.  Your first objective is to simply obtain the person’s support and agreement to participate, and then develop the relationship from there, whether that occurs in that same first conversation, or more likely, over a period of time.  I would have a wish list when you go in, but it sounds like the connection is a good personal one, so I would certainly approach it informally, with the person doing the ask well prepared to ask for a variety of different things depending on what the luminary says.  You certainly could pitch his presence on your new Advisory Board as a helpful draw for other members, but I would have a couple other names in mind to toss out so you demonstrate your preparation.

 As far as Advisory Boards, I think they very incredibly wildly,including the level of participation between different members on the same Advisory Board.  I worked with one organization that had a critical scientific/medical advisory board that met twice annually and really helped shape the organization’s policies and priorities going forward, but in other cases, the advisory board clearly never is called upon for “advice.”

 I have one client that literally bounced up and down when a certain luminary agreed to be the first member on their newly formed advisory board.  As she is the founding mother of an entire industry and quite famous in those circles of potential sponsors and program partners, the group was ecstatic.  She is also personally loaded, and they assumed she’d cut some big checks to support them.  Alas, while she has graciously attended some meetings and some offered some wiseadvice, she has neither personally donated much nor tapped into her massive rolodex for them.  Its not for lack of trying, but she simply supports so many organizations and has such a crazy schedule — they have accepted that her name and some advice is about all they’ll get.

Her name alone has brought in some corporate support — even without her making a call — so they have leveraged her as best they can.

 Conversely, another client invited a very major sports celeb to a local event, working all the proper channels through his “people,” and he wound up being so impressed with the kids and the program, HE asked how he could help more, and has now become a great spokesperson and advocate for them, which they never anticipated.  They were able on the cuff to say “sure, we’d love to get you involved in x, y or z” and he was enthused, said to arrange a meeting, and it went from there.

 I think its a bit like dating — you hope for the best on that first date, put on a nice outfit, blow out your hair and put some makeup on, and try to be as charming and witty and delightful as you can be, butyou never really know how its all going to pan out!  Good luck!”

Tara Kelly

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