The Oprah Effect: The value of celebrity-charity partnerships

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They call it The Oprah Effect — the significant and often unexpected boost that comes from something being championed by Oprah Winfrey. But it’s not just Oprah, nor is it a new phenomenon — back in the 1760s, Wedgwood used a royal seal of approval to help sell their company and china products.

Celebrities can bring attention to a charity just as they do a product. We only have to look back to the 1985 Band-Aid concert where musicians lent their star power to raise more than $24M for Ethiopian famine relief to see the effectiveness of using platforms for good.

This year, in Canada, two celebrity-charity partnerships were in the spotlight: the impact the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had on BC charities, and the final Tragically Hip tour, which raised awareness and funds for brain cancer research.

We thought it was time to examine the value of such partnerships in today’s charitable climate, to understand the value and role of celebrities working with charities.

Why do celebrities do this?

For better or for worse, our culture has a fascination with celebrity and social media allows fans to have a greater degree of access to their idols than ever before. Increasingly, however, celebrities are realizing they don’t want only to focus on themselves: Canadian actress Pamela Anderson says, “When I was on Baywatch, I’m the one who called PETA and said, ‘I’m so sick of talking about my personal life, please give me something to talk about that’s meaningful.’ And they did.”

Jan Friedlander Svendsen, chief marketing officer for Charity Network says, “Everyone has different reasons to be part of something. Most celebrities realize they have a voice, they can make an impact and want to do so for social good.”

Like any supporter of any charity, celebrities may have superficial or self-interested motives mixed in with good intentions, but most often, there is genuine interest or passion overlapping with the work of the charities they support.

Prince William and his wife, Princess Kate, visited Victoria's The Cridge Centre for the Family on their recent visit to western Canada. Joanne Specht, manager of communication and fund development at The Cridge Centre, says, “People may be cynical about their intentions, but we really saw that they are deeply engaged and very interested in people and the struggles they face, as well as their own role in helping people. The Duke has a deep interest in speaking out about domestic violence. We found that very encouraging — having a voice like his speak out about domestic violence is a powerful thing and provides hope in the wider context.”

Why do charities do this?

“A brand that is able to break through the clutter of marketing messages by being associated with a well-known, attractive, and sometimes expert endorser is typically perceived to be more credible and more likable. Both of those aspects — credibility and likeability — add value to a brand, which in turn makes it easier and more likely that consumers would choose the particular brand. We believe it’s a fairly similar process for celebrities and nonprofit organizations,” says Julie Ruth, a professor of marketing at the Rutgers School of Business–Camden, and co-author of The Relationship of Celebrity Affiliation to Nonprofit Contributions: A Donations Demand Model Assessment.


Claire Kerr, director, digital philanthropy at FrontStream says, “Donors don’t typically say that the reason they gave to a cause is because of a celebrity mention. People tend to give because a loved one asked them to do so — you donate to a friend doing a charity walk not because you have thought of the cause before, but because you love that person. In a case like Gord Downie [Tragically Hip frontman Downie was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a rare and incurable brain cancer], many Canadians gave because they felt a strong emotional tie to him.”

In fact, according to a joint press release by Sunnybrook Foundation and the Canadian Cancer Society, “From bake sales to raffles to concert viewing parties and ticket sales, thousands of fans have translated their emotional response to Mr. Downie's diagnosis into action that will make a difference to those diagnosed with this life-threatening disease.” These grassroots efforts have raised more than a million dollars to date, with almost $800,000 donated to the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and close to $400,000 to the Canadian Cancer Society.

Awareness Raising

“It’s easy to say that if you have a celebrity on board, you’re going to get more donations,” says Erica Harris, assistant professor of accounting at the Rutgers School of Business–Camden. “However, we find that celebrities also offer a credibility signal to donors, which is especially important for nonprofit organizations.” This contributes to the second benefit of celebrity endorsement: awareness-raising.

Another charity visited by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was Sheway, a community outreach program for women and children in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Public affairs officer Carrie Stefanson was enthusiastic about their visit. “Media from across Canada and around the world showed interest in our program. So many people have heard of Sheway who didn’t know about us before. The attention generated by the royal visit helped solidify a partner who is funding a mobile health services van for marginalized women.”

Of the royal visit to The Cridge Centre, Specht says, “Our hope is that as our profile has been raised, people know more and may think of us if they need our service or want to support our work.”

Winnette Sampson, director, community engagement for the Sunnybrook Foundation, agrees that awareness-raising can be valuable in itself. “Like the Ice Bucket Challenge, Gord Downie brought awareness to a particular illness. It started a conversation and encouraged people to talk about their own personal experiences.” It's interesting to note that even the 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge itself had a huge uptick in participation and donations once celebrities began participating and challenging their fans and famous friends to do likewise.

Program Support

A less obvious role for celebrities has to do with the delivery of programs. As Kerr points out, “If a celebrity dresses up as a superhero to visit a children’s hospital, this actually is part of your program, helping brighten the lives of those patients.”

Specht saw this first-hand with the visiting royals. “Meeting the royal couple was a psychological boost for our clients. They felt validated and heard and engaged with. This was life-changing not only for those specific people but for our client base as a whole — that the place they come to for support was recognized and valued in the community and worldwide.”

Similarly, Stefanson says, “The women who met the royal couple and had one-on-one conversations were empowered by the experience. They all said it was amazing that someone of that stature wanted to hear their stories. This was transformational to our clients.”

Bringing a celebrity to a special event — such as a golf tournament or concert — also is a way of giving back to donors, suggests Sampson. “It’s a way of creating a memorable experience for our guests and enabling us to have the best event possible.”

How to get yourself a celebrity

Don’t call us… Often, the approach comes from the celebrity themselves because of their own personal connection to the cause. “For us, a celebrity has to self-identify as wanting to connect with us. We want to be sensitive to what someone is going through in the public arena so we would not approach someone in a time of turmoil. Rather we let them make their intent known to us.” says Samson.

For Friedlander Svendsen, whose organization, Charity Network, works with charities and celebrities around the world, the best matches come from a celebrity who approaches Charity Network and wants to raise funds for a charity that’s near to their heart, or a cause with which they have an affinity or an association. “We will work with someone who is looking for the other half of the partnership and we will connect people in an organic way. That kind of partnership feels genuine and helps drive support.”

Research, research, research. “Lots of people are trying to get the time and attention of high profile individuals. Doing deep research on those individuals and targeting your ask to people who share a passion for your work is vital,” says Kerr who tells of Teva Harrison, director of marketing at The Nature Conservancy of Canada, who researched all the celebrities she could find with genuine concern for the Canadian environment. Harrison used her research to write dozens of individual, impassioned, handwritten letters to celebrities. Not many responded, but one who did was Ryan Reynolds. “It goes to show how much unseen work is behind bringing on the right ambassadors for your cause,” says Kerr. Friedlander Svenden adds, “I’ve worked with a lot of talent and if you ask them to do something promotional, you get pushback, but the easiest ask is to do something for a good cause. Cause motivates celebrities unlike anything else.”

Target the ask like you would with a corporate sponsor. “Be prepared to demonstrate the value of your organization, its impact, what you can offer, where your values overlap with theirs. Remember too that people like to give to causes that look like they are successful. Make yourself attractive to people wanting to get on board with you by demonstrating where your organization is a leader in the field,” says Kerr. She adds, “Keep in mind that this is different from major gift prospecting in that you aren’t just asking for a big gift but asking for extended reach through a celebrity’s network.”

Be sure about fit. It’s not simply a question of finding the biggest name to mention your charity. “Celebrity connections can be extremely beneficial as long as the celebrities have a genuine connection to the cause, a stake in the game (i.e. giving time, money or resources), and their personal brand fits well with the charity’s brand,” says Kerr. “Without these elements, a celebrity can have little or zero effect.”

Don’t just think A-Lister. Remembering that a celebrity’s value is simply in their influence, organizations can broaden their definition of celebrity beyond A-Listers to include local celebrities, such as newscasters, board members or even a charity’s founder, says Kerr. “Every community has people like that. Think about researching and stewarding these people to be ambassadors for your cause — the return on investment could be potentially huge from their extensive but hidden network.”

Be ready to jump when opportunity knocks. Charities that hosted the royal couple were contacted out of the blue by government offices asking them if they wanted to be part of a VIP event. In the case of The Cridge Centre, it took 3.5 months of planning for a 45-minute visit, including a private reception, a larger ceremony, and a meet-and-greet. Specht says, “The value was there but it took huge work and resources to prepare for it. To run an event of this size is a huge commitment and you have to be all in.” Sampson tells charities, “Be open and flexible to when organic opportunities come forward. Be able to accept what comes from it.”

Be aware that times have changed. Unlike its predecessor, the 2014 Live Aid 30 had detractors questioning “whether a gathering of celebrity pop stars smacks of a bit of ego-polishing mixed in with their humanitarianism.” Millennial donors instead prefer to see socially conscious celebrities influence good causes by connecting directly with their fans online, which may then lead to fundraising.

To this end, new models like Charity Network are tapping into new sources of money and new donors. Their Prizeo platform offers a raffle where fans donate for a chance to win an experience with the celebrity of their choice. They also work with celebrities to create videos that spread messages from their charity partners. “Charity Network is taking social responsibility from analog to digital,” says Friedlander Svendsen. “We’ve seen that, for serious fundraising, digital is the best way to amplify your message.” For Friedlander Svendsen, Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda is a terrific example of a celebrity who leverages social media and digital marketing in causes that are very meaningful for him, and consequently breaks fundraising records.

How to build on celeb involvement

Like any other peer-to-peer fundraising, the challenge is retaining the interest (and donations) beyond the initial gift or action that came from the celebrity connection. “Generic messaging won’t work,” says Kerr. “You need to build a specialized donor pipeline that shows the impact of that gift and reminds them of the emotion that inspired that first gift.”

When it comes to the awareness built by celebrities, Kerr urges charities to recognize that even a short celebrity event can create collateral to be used throughout the rest of the year, through video, blog posts, interviews, etc.

It’s also important to deepen your ongoing relationship with a celebrity partner: rather than simply having them show up for a one-off event, a celebrity can become an ambassador for the organization, offering funds and time, and reaching out to their network to invite them to do likewise.

While some in the charitable sector may be intimidated by the prospect of working with celebrities, Friedlander Svendsen is reassuring. “Celebrities are just people too and they care and like everyone else want to do good.” Kerr adds, “If you want to do big things, you have to think big. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Brad Pitt could say no, but Ryan Reynolds could say yes.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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