Case study
May 26, 2016

How a Charity Made the Most of a Celebrity Supporter’s TV Appearance — After Years of Patience

Courtesy Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

Louis C.K. appeared on Jeopardy and subsequently donated his winnings to the Fistula Foundation.

Near the end of 2011, the Fistula Foundation surprisingly received $40,000 in gifts from Louis C.K. — making it one of several charities the comedian would donate more than a quarter of a million dollars to that year from the proceeds of one of his standup specials.

“We were over the moon about it,” said Kate Grant, chief executive of the nonprofit, located in San Jose, Calif., who added that she was astounded that the irreverent comedian chose to give to her little-known organization, whose supporters tend to be women. The charity, which had a budget of $8 million last year, sponsors surgeries at hospitals in poor countries for women who develop obstetric fistula, an injury that leaves women incontinent after childbirth. It also supports training for medical staff on how to treat the condition as well as construction of hospitals and operating rooms.

The contributions from the comedian, who heard about the nonprofit through one of his producers, could have been a one-time thing. But the charity kept in touch with Louis C.K., occasionally sending personalized updates. Ms. Grant joked that her approach to communicating with the star after his 2011 gifts was based on “patience and prayer.”

The organization's soft touch appears to have paid off. The comedian chose the nonprofit to be the beneficiary of his winnings on his recent appearance on the game show Jeopardy, winning $50,000 for the organization and beating out a CNN anchor and a Washington Post reporter in a celebrity version of the show.

Ms. Grant described in an interview with The Chronicle how the nonprofit maintained contact with the star and then used his appearance on Jeopardy to spur giving from others and spread the organization’s name and mission to a wider audience.

Infrequent, Personalized Messages

After his 2011 gifts, the charity didn’t ask Louis C.K. for more money and didn’t even add him to its newsletter or email lists. The nonprofit wanted him to be involved with the charity on his own terms.

Ms. Grant said she got the sense that Louis C.K. was a private, humble person who would not respond to being hounded frequently.

That doesn’t mean the foundation never communicated with him. About once or twice a year, Ms. Grant sent him a note, package, or videos. All of the mailings were done specifically for him and described the type of work he had supported. Once the charity sent him a video about its work that also included footage from one of his standup routines.

Over the years, there was little communication from the star, but Ms. Grant never felt compelled to ramp up communications with him. “I had a number of people who asked, ‘Why don’t you get him to do something for you?’ ” Ms. Grant said. “I said, ‘That’s like asking him to give away his brilliance. We’re not going to ask him for that.’”

Interest Rekindled  

Earlier this year, Jeopardy producers notified the charity that Louis C.K. had chosen it as the charity to benefit from his potential winnings from a scheduled appearance on the show.

Ms. Grant kept the news secret — even from most of its employees — until producers made the news public in April. She did tell  the head of communications, and the two moved quickly to brainstorm how to use the appearance to share their mission with a wider audience, and maybe earn some additional donations.

A Game, E-Card, and Invites

The charity created a Jeopardy-like game for the group’s website in which supporters could answer questions about the nonprofit, Jeopardy, and Louis C.K. Correct answers unlocked portions of a $25,000 donation from anonymous donors. More than 2,100 people have played the game, which went online May 9, and all of the cash has been unlocked.

The charity also sent out an e-card to its supporters in April, which explained that the comedian was competing on the game show for the charity and asked for signatures to thank him. Nearly 500 people signed the card, and many left notes of support. The charity later forwarded the card to him.

It also invited 10 donors to the filming of the show in Washington, D.C., on April 9. The nonprofit holds few events, so it was a rare opportunity for Ms. Grant to meet donors in person. When the show aired, the foundation held a viewing party and invited supporters.

Louis C.K. ended up winning handily.

Media Outreach

The night the show aired, on May 18, the charity’s site had so many visitors, it crashed, and the higher level of traffic has continued over the past week.

Ms. Grant said it’s difficult to assess whether contributions have increased due to the game-show appearance because most of the charity’s supporters give by mail. Although the nonprofit did not see higher-than-average online donations last week when the show aired, 65 percent of the online donors mentioned Louis C.K.’s appearance in comments with their gifts.  

The foundation also circulated a news release, and more than 30 outlets have run stories.

Ms. Grant spoke to a reporter from USA Today at the show’s filming, which resulted in an article, and she has noticed that other publications have quoted the story widely.

The San Francisco Chronicle picked up the story, too, and the San Jose Mercury News covered the viewing party.

Ms. Grant said she plans to keep in contact with Louis C.K. as she did before, with “infrequent, personal, and respectful” communications.

Send an email to Timothy Sandoval.