November 02, 2011

Celebrities May Be Overrated as Online Fund Raisers, Says Study

Henry McGee/Globe Photos/Zumapress/Newscom

Kanye West sponsored a badge on Kevin Bacon’s Six Degrees social-giving Web site, but didn’t supply a personal story and failed to rally his followers around it. It didn’t attract any donations.

Ashton Kutcher, Kanye West, and other big-name celebrities don’t do as much good for charity on Twitter, Facebook, or other social networks as less-famous people, a new study finds. Actors, comics, singers and bloggers with deep personal ties to causes and potential donors raise far more money for charities.

The report, released this week by the consulting firm Zoetica Media and PayPal, the online donations portal, studied six major online fund-raising campaigns. The key to finding the best advocate, the report says, lies not with Twitter-follower counts or star power but in finding the spokesman who will spend time online interacting with his or her followers and other potential donors.

“Engagement matters with social media, often much more so than having a large online fan base at the beginning of a campaign,” the report says. “Unlike a personal appearance, photo op, or scripted [public-service announcement], where just showing up will get it done, social fund raising requires an active, authentic, and continued involvement [from the fund raiser] … even if only for a short time.”

Celebrities Upstaged

While attracting a major celebrity can indeed help a charity raise sizable sums, the researchers said appearances can be misleading. They cited as an example a recent Save the Children drive in which Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber helped raise $100,000 on the first day to fight famine in Somalia and other parts of East Africa.

But, the researchers said, the drive raised far less than a penny per celebrity follower when considering their millions of online fans.

To show the online fund-raising power of lesser-known people, the researchers studied social-media campaigns that involved both celebrities and relatively obscure advocates.

In one, the actor Ashton Kutcher lent his star power to a campaign on Facebook’s Causes to raise money for a new children’s hospital. He was upstaged by Paddy O’Brien, a California boy who shared the story of his battle with bone cancer as he raised money for the children’s hospital that treated him.

The report says Paddy brought in more than 1,000 donations, compared with Mr. Kutcher’s 114.

Similarly, when the actor Kevin Bacon’s Six Degrees social-giving Web site recruited Nicole Kidman, Ashley Judd, and 60 or more other celebrities to create “charity badges” on the site, the top fund raiser turned out to be the scrapbooking blogger Ali Edwards.

The mother of an autistic child, she created a badge in support of the charity Autism Speaks, then promoted it on her blog. Her fellow scrapbookers shared her blog posts, circulating them so widely that the campaign had to make technical adjustments to accept donations from outside the United States.

The rapper Kanye West sponsored a badge but didn’t supply a personal story and failed to rally his followers around it. It didn’t attract any donations.

'White Glove’ Service

While most charities raised less than $10,000 last year through social-media campaigns, the researchers said strong advocates are so valuable that they should be treated with the kind of “white-glove” service typically reserved for large donors., which enables supporters to give money to help public-school projects, ran a campaign in which it tried to identify bloggers” with the strongest online networks, then helped them fine-tune their appeals with step-by-step instructions and information, much in the way charities help board members become stronger fund raisers.

“Once we know that person is willing, we know it will be successful,” Anna Doherty, marketing manager of, told the report’s authors. “The mark of a good grass-roots campaign is that it is actually grass roots. The base level is a really passionate advocate. Social media just helps them.”

Tips for Recruiting Famous Fund Raisers

What to seek when vetting celebrities to participate in a charity’s social-media campaign, according to a new report by Zoetica Media and PayPal:

• Make sure the celebrity already actively uses social media and interacts regularly online with fans.

• Be sure the celebrity has a personal connection and an authentic passion for the cause.

• Check that the celebrity is willing to ask friends to get involved, not just fans and followers.

• Welcome the nontraditional celebrity. A blogger with passionate fans might be better than a big-name celebrity with millions of casual followers.