March 13, 2003

Three Steps to Recruiting Celebrity Supporters for a Charity


Finding a celebrity to represent a charity can resemble a cross between dating and looking to fill a job,

say nonprofit leaders. Here are three steps they recommend for finding high-wattage supporters:

Make connections. Sometimes, the rings of people insulating stars from the outside world can be a charity's ticket into their inner circle. "They have a slew of people around them, so normally networking is the best way," says Stephanie Sandler, vice president of the Giving Back Fund, an organization in Los Angeles and Boston that helps public figures and others set up foundations. "If you have people who know people in their camp, that's going to be more effective than a straight phone call. The thing with celebrities is there's so many people who want something from them. If you are associated with someone they trust, it can really help."

Research targets carefully. Don't waste energy on celebrities whose work and public statements do not jibe with a particular charity's mission. Also, look for public figures who aren't already overbooked with philanthropic commitments. "You have to find the younger artists who don't necessarily have causes," says Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance, in Washington. "We had trouble getting artists like Liz Taylor and Barbra Streisand interested in the global AIDS battle -- they've sort of already done their work at home. You look for people who have openings in their philanthropy portfolio, along with people who are on record as being involved in progressive causes."

Tap the organization's own resources. Talk to staff members and trustees who might have ties to celebrities -- if they do, try to put them to work. "It is not just a matter of asking 'Who do you know?' but also researching and brainstorming with your current volunteers and supporters," says Emily M. Newman, chief development officer of Chrysalis, a homeless shelter and job-retraining program in Los Angeles. "For example, there are a lot of people who work on the business side of the entertainment industry that volunteers might not identify as links unless they were prompted to do so."

Some organizations have an advantage: They do work that puts them in contact with celebrities, which may provide more opportunities to discuss support, says Jeffrey Norman, vice president of public affairs at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in Newark. "In the arts," he says, "it seems a little easier in that if celebrities are already appearing at your venue, you can make the request that they participate in some sort of donor-related event."

Not every famous person with personal or professional M. ties to a nonprofit organization will prove to be a good candidate to become that charity's public supporter. But, says Merilee Hammill, director of development for the Center for Family Services, in Camden, N.J., it's important to weigh the pros along with the cons. "The worst use of celebrity endorsement," she says, "is having access to it and not using it."

-- Jeffrey Klineman