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Celebrity Endorsements of Nonprofits: What does it take to get Robert Redford to support your cause?

Submitted Wednesday, November 20th 2013 4:09 pm by Timothy S. Jacobson
in   celebrities    actors    athletes    causes    fundraising    charitable giving    major donors    psychology    motivation    contributions    nonprofit    non-profit  


What does it take to get Robert Redford to support your cause?

By Timothy S. Jacobson

~The Nonprofit Provocateur~

"[Celebrities] can bring everything. They can accentuate their entire brand and throw it behind a nonprofit, and it just takes off. It can really be wildfire."

—Dan Portnoy, author of The Nonprofit Narrative: How Stories Can Save The World

Robert Redford

Recently, I received a large piece of mail from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) advocating against the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed. The package included a letter from Robert Redford, and I took the time to peruse the information. Maybe I'll even donate money. (Of course, I won't admit that I was persuaded by a celebrity endorsement--at least not to you;)

Should your nonprofit consider adding another arrow to its quiver and take a crack at seeking support from potential donors with the help of an endorsement from a major celebrity à la NRDC with the Bristol Bay situation?

I know it sounds a bit crazy, right? I mean—unless you run a nonprofit organization of national or international scope—how can you possibly attract the attention of, and get support from, a major celebrity?

But think about it. Maybe your organization is endorsement-worthy. Perhaps you work to address societal challenges that are every bit as significant as the ones you sometimes see celebrities involved in.

For example, I serve on the board of directors of a non-profit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. One of the issues the organization is engaged in is a proposed iron mine in the Penokee Hills of northwestern Wisconsin.

A company based in Florida purchased the mineral rights for a vast area in Wisconsin--21,000 acres along 22 miles of the beautiful and pristine Penokee Range for what may become the world's largest open-pit mine. It's an enormous potential threat to the natural environment and people there. It may affect Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world.

A threat of this magnitude is every bit as celebrity-worthy as any other charitable cause that actors or athletes might attach themselves to.

Here's another factoid that might make this concept more feasible for your organization. Recently, I attended a tourism summit meeting with Stephanie Klett, Wisconsin's Secretary of Tourism and a former Miss Wisconsin. She told the story of how she facilitated the creation of the comical “Wizard of Ahhh’s” tourism commercial with Green Bay Packer Jordy Nelson, which was directed by Wisconsin native and Hollywood filmmaker, Jerry Zucker, and how Zucker's older brother David is working on another one. She said that in the four decades since those guys left Wisconsin for Hollywood, apparently nobody had ever asked them to do a favor like this for their home state. In other words, sometimes, major celebrities may be underutilized to help various causes (while other celebrities may be bombarded with requests).

There are studies that demonstrate the significant, positive impact celebrities potentially bring to charitable causes, and there are some helpful articles online:

The Role Of Celebrities In Non-Profit Campaigns (HuffPost Live)

[Study] The Effectiveness of Celebrity Endorsements in Non-Profit Ads

The Top 5 Mistakes Nonprofits Make When Attempting to Engage Celebrities

Of course, if you do explore the celebrity-endorsement path, make sure you connect with a celebrity who will be a good fit and help your cause rather than hurt it. Maybe you won't be able to secure a big name from Hollywood, but there are plenty of other types of celebrities out there, and some may be a better fit for your intended audience.

For example, when I was executive director of a nonprofit land trust which focused on land conservation, we connected with Ben Logan, one of Wisconsin's most famous authors and the guy who wrote the book "The Land Remembers: The story of a farm and its people." Both the author and the book were a perfect fit with the message the conservancy was working to get in front of landowners and potential donors.

Another celebrity we connected with at the conservancy was Kenny Salwey--the subject of the Emmy-winning BBC documentary "Mississippi: Tales of the Last River Rat" and author of several books. Salwey is a wonderful storyteller who can captivate audiences and put them in a spell of nostalgia and enchantment. He served as a keynote speaker at several successful fundraising events, and his books were repeatedly offered as a premium to donors who contributed above a certain threshold.

What made Logan and Salwey such good celebrity endorsers is the fact that they both care deeply about the mission that the conservancy focuses on: permanent conservation of working lands and wildlife habitat.

Celebrity involvement with your charity may not feasible for everyone, but think outside of the box and consider the possibilities. You may discover that your organization can reach a hugely larger audience and be easily heard above the fundraising static of countless other groups clamoring for donor attention and dollars.

P.S. ‘Like’ and/or 'Share' this article below if you agree that celebrity endorsements can be helpful for fundraising, and use the comment field to add your own thoughts or examples of how you've seen this idea put into practice. I'd like to hear from you!


Tim Jacobson is president of Visjonær Consulting. He's been a board member and executive of a number of nonprofit and for-profit organizations over the past two decades. He's the author of "Explosive Marketing for Nonprofits: Trajectory for Success," which will be released in 2014, a novel "The Kurchatov Penetration," and he served as executive producer of a documentary film, "Mysteries of the Driftless" broadcast on PBS. He has led successful efforts to raise millions of dollars for nonprofit organizations in the form of grants and individual donations. He's been featured numerous times in magazines, newspapers and on TV for his organizational consulting, nonprofit and business leadership leadership, his film and writing projects, and his exploration of international peace issues.

This article copyright (c) 2013, Timothy S. Jacobson. All rights reserved.


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