News and analysis
March 05, 2015
Updated March 27, 2015

Social-Media Stars Ascend as Top Partners for Nonprofits

Andrew Toth, Getty Images
ONLINE STARDOM: James Lecesne, Arianna Huffington, Tyler Oakley, Peggy Rajski, and Abbe Land attend a Trevor Project event in New York. One of Mr. Oakley's video campaigns raised $500,000 for suicide prevention.
When Tyler Oakley posted a YouTube video last year asking his audience to mark his 25th birthday by donating to the Trevor Project, a suicide-prevention hotline for gay and lesbian youths, he set an ambitious goal: $150,000.

Using the donation platform Prizeo, Mr. Oakley went on to raise more than half a million dollars, making him the nonprofit’s largest individual fundraiser in 2014.

His name might mean little in the analog world, but Mr. Oakley’s 6.4 million YouTube subscribers have made him a power broker online. He belongs to a new brand of celebrities—media personalities, often created in bedrooms-turned-home-studios, who command massive audiences on platforms like Vine, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter.

Many are already paid by corporations to plug everything from lipstick to video games. And they are equally hot in the nonprofit world, where these Internet stars are rapidly matching the influence of traditional Hollywood celebrities.

"I would take a Tyler Oakley over a Brad Pitt any day," says Calvin Stowell, director of digital at DoSomething.org.

Online Sensations

Last May, Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox, the 27-year-old faces of YouTube sensation Smosh, posted a 13-minute video in which they play-acted out their lives as would-be parents. It is laced with jokes about poop, flatulence, breast milk, and cocaine—the same strain of goofball humor that made the duo among the biggest stars on YouTube, with more than 30 million followers across a suite of channels.

The video was more than just an inane blip of Internet humor. It racked up 1.7 million views and 30,000 "likes" while also driving 51,958 people to a DoSomething.org campaign aimed at deterring teen pregnancy. That accounted for 33 percent of total campaign sign-ups, says Colleen Wormsley, marketing associate at the youth-focused nonprofit.

In another campaign in August, DoSomething.org partnered with the singer and online star Shawn Mendes in a campaign to raise awareness about self-harming behaviors like cutting. The idea was to encourage young people to write each other encouraging messages and stick them in unexpected places as reminders that they were in others’ thoughts.

The 16-year-old Mr. Mendes promoted the campaign on Twitter and Instagram, and within 24 hours DoSomething.org had 20,000 sign-ups.

"I would say authenticity is our No. 1 concern when we look toward creating a partnership, whether it be with a charity or a philanthropy or with an advertiser," says Liz Teschler, marketing director for Smosh Brands.

The mission and tone of the content produced with, or on behalf of, a nonprofit partner must align seamlessly with what made the online personality popular in the first place, Ms. Teschler says.

The biggest Internet stars enjoy a vaunted level of credibility with their fans, meticulously tended to with "likes," tags, retweets, and mentions, or the digital equivalents of a long, warm hug. A mismatched partnership risks provoking negative chatter online, instantaneous feedback Ms. Teschler describes as both the beauty and the curse of the YouTube audience.

The big upside, she says, is the high level of accessibility that distinguishes social-media stars from their traditional counterparts.

"There is actually a chance that Ian or Anthony might tweet you or answer your comment or read your email, whereas if you are Justin Bieber, that is probably not going to happen," Ms. Teschler says. "That is why youth audiences really grasp onto these stars."

Speaking With Authority

Nonprofit officials interested in partnering with the Connor Frantas and the Hannah Harts—both Internet stars—of the world should determine who is already speaking with authority on subjects related to their organizations’ missions, according to those who work with them. Ms. Teschler says quizzing one’s own children about whom they are following can be a good place to start.

"In my work with youth audiences online, I find that philanthropy is important," Ms. Tesch­ler says. "Kids nowadays want to give back. They want to use their power for social good, whether it is by doing a hashtag or spreading the job of sharing a Prank It Forward video or actually making a donation or volunteering their time."

Rachel Peridot Katz, senior analyst at the Global Philanthropy Group, a California-based consulting firm that works regularly with celebrities and luxury brands, says nonprofits must be savvy about which social-media influencers they engage. The ephemeral nature of some new platforms like Snapchat has only accelerated the cycle of fame. Audiences move on quicker than ever, she says.

"I think what the challenge for nonprofits is is being able to ferret out who has staying power and who is worth putting the time and energy into," Ms. Katz says.

How to initiate contact with these individuals varies dramatically, Ms. Teschler, Ms. Katz and others say. Many of the biggest stars now have agents and publicists who should be the first point of contact. Others have no representation and can be contacted directly through their social-media accounts.

Working with social-media stars requires nonprofits to cede a certain amount of control over their brand and message, according to those who work on such partnerships — another reason to carefully vet potential partners.

"For us, the no-go zone is if someone says or does something bigoted," says Mr. Stowell of DoSomething.org. "If they are openly homophobic or openly racist or openly misogynist, they just wouldn’t be someone we would want to work with anyway."

Video Is King

Amy Sample Ward, chief executive of the Nonprofit Technology Network, a membership organization for nonprofit technology professionals, says that the rise of social-media stars is occurring alongside, or even fuel­ing, the ascension of video in nonprofit marketing and communications. In the Nonprofit Technology Network’s recently published 2015 outlook report, 96 percent of respondents said they would maintain or increase their focus on video in 2015.

The territory does not exclusively belong to Generations Y and Z. Mommy blogger Jessica Shyba began posting photos on Instagram of her toddler napping with the family’s newly adopted puppy in November 2013. The images, along with Ms. Shyba’s mentions of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Santa Cruz and its mission, struck a chord.

Within weeks, the organization gained 1,000 new followers on its Instagram account, says shelter manager Mandi Hart. It received $10,000 from donors who cited Ms. Shyba’s social-media activity.

In February 2014, Ms. Shyba partnered with Evite to make a special Valentine’s Day card featuring the now-Internet-famous toddler and pooch, which brought in about $2,000 to the shelter. And this month, Ms. Shyba published a book of photos of the cuddly duo. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the shelter, Ms. Hart says.

Crossing Over

Partnering with an up-and-coming social-media star can pay extra dividends if his or her fame carries over into more traditional forms of mass media. Record deals and book contracts are increasingly common for Internet sensations.

Steve Mendelsohn, deputy executive director of the Trevor Project, pointed to the three Internet personalities GloZell Green, Bethany Mota, and the Vlogbrothers, who interviewed President Obama at the White House in January.

"I’m watching their influence increase exponentially," Mr. Mendelsohn says.

Social-media stars helped raise more than $1 million on the online donation platform Prizeo during the past 18 months, officials there say, and expect to see their fundraising prowess grow in the coming year.

Mr. Oakley — who opines on pop culture and chitchats with friends in his humorous, often irreverent weekly videos — said in an email interview with The Chronicle that those with big platforms should use them responsibly. On Thursday, at the NTEN conference in Austin, Mr. Oakley won the inaugural DoGooder Video Award for YouTube creators.

"It was never my intent to have the audience that I have, but considering the fact that I’m lucky enough to have them, I definitely make social responsibility one of my priorities," he says.

In a video published on February 10, Mr. Oakley announced this year’s birthday fundraising goal of $500,000, again to benefit the Trevor Project, with enthusiastic promises of Skype calls and personalized videos for participants.

"You may think, ‘Holy crap, that is a lot of money, Tyler. I don’t have a half a million dollars,’ " Mr. Oakley tells his audience in his trademark cheeky, rapid-fire delivery. "That’s OK! The main success of last year’s campaign was so many of you came out and gave what you could."

With 27 days remaining in the campaign, he is already more than halfway to his goal.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.

Taking it Viral

Internet stars are perceived as more accessible than their traditional counterparts, giving them a vaunted level of credibility with fans and making them especially valuable partners.

Nonprofits should align themselves with online influencers who are already speaking with authority on issues related to their missions.

Partnerships like these require nonprofits to cede some control of their messaging, but when done right it can pay big dividends.