Famously charitable – why charities still need celebrity support

Categories: Community Engagement.

I was interested to read a recent article in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, which suggested that charities receive limited benefit from celebrity endorsement. The report, written by Professors Dan Brockington and Spencer Henson, suggests that often, the celebrity stands to gain more from the relationship than the charity.

Industry magazine Third Sector covered the story and despite the negative tone of the academic report, I felt it was my professional duty, as PR & Celebrity Manager for a charity, to find the positive spin. In this case, the fact that the magazine had illustrated the article with a promotional image of TOWIE stars, Sam and Billie Faiers, endorsing a fundraising event for my charity – Haven House Children’s Hospice.

Of all the celebrity images out there (well over 2 billion at last count according to Google), Third Sector chose to use an image of our supporters, promoting a local children’s hospice in suburban Essex. While not wishing to justify my own existence here, that is a pretty nifty example as to why small charities such as ours, continue to seek celebrity endorsement. It really is a brilliantly cost-effective way of gaining brand awareness and cut-through.

Brockington and Henson’s verdict however, is that the public will choose to support a charity due to ‘personal or family connections rather than celebrity-led promotion.’ I agree; a potential donor will almost always have a personal and/or emotional affinity with the cause in the first instance.

However, the reasons why they choose to support, say for example, one heart charity over another, are far more complex. What could help them in the decision-making process, is that they may have recently read an interview in a Sunday broadsheet, where a distinguished British actor talks about how charity X helped him through his recent heart-scare. They may have also watched a TV interview, where a soap-star discusses the support she received from that charity, after her mother died from a heart attack. Perhaps they noticed from their Twitter feed that the boy-bander du jour is cutting his famous cherubic curls in aid of the same organisation.

Celebrity endorsement may not have been the key driver in their decision, but the fact that these celebrities are creating chatter around charity X, may well have been a contributing factor, albeit on a subconscious level.

Furthermore, the thirst for celebrity content across traditional, online and social media shows no sign of being satiated any time soon. Given that relatively few smaller charities have the budget for national media campaigns, celebrity endorsement is essential for media reach. At Haven House for example, roughly 10% of our media coverage comes from celebrity activity and endorsement.

However, the days of getting ‘A N Other celebrity’ to rock-up to a photo-call to sit in a bath of beans are thankfully over. Nowadays charities and celebrity agents are taking a far more strategic and targeted approach and media is wising up to certain ‘rent-a-celebs’.

Increasingly editors are looking for celebrities who have a genuine link to their chosen charity – which is perhaps the reason why Third Sector chose to use our image over a glut of other celebrity photos. In this case, sisters known principally for where they live, supporting a children’s hospice where they live (although doing so while looking impossibly glamorous, probably helped the editorial decision).

At Haven House we have very specific criteria in seeking and accepting celebrity endorsement. Our key supporters must have either a personal and genuine relationship with the cause and/or a close association with our local community. Most importantly, they must resonate and have an affinity with the children and families that we support. Luckily our famous neighbours include people like Ray Winstone, Ben Shephard and Mark Wright – West Essex boys who are only too happy to support their local children’s hospice.

To answer Brockington and Spencer’s theory that celebrities have the most to gain from philanthropic partnerships, I can honestly say that the relationship Haven House has with its celebrities, is far more equitable and mutually beneficial. Those who support us and meet our life-limited children and families appear genuinely engaged with the cause. 

As an example, we recently had a visit from an A-lister, who spent an afternoon meeting our service users and finding out more about our work at the hospice. Apart from the fact that he arrived in a chauffeured Rolls Royce, he left his ego at the door, and requested zero media attendance or press coverage. It would take someone more cynical than me, to see why his visit was anything other than philanthropic.

When a popular household name like this visits the hospice, it really creates a buzz of excitement, providing a boost to our children and families and helping to increase morale amongst our nurses and carers; a ‘money can’t buy’ experience for the hospice, regardless of any additional boon to the celebrity.

This article was first published by The Huffington Post and is republished here with permission.

Follow Rachel Braier on Twitter @dinky75

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