Bright Lights & Big Stars

This is a story from the latest issue of NPT’s Exempt Magazine


If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times: Fundraising is all about developing and building relationships with your donors and supporters. For nonprofits looking to corral a few celebrities to help their cause, it’s much the same thing.

Portland, Ore.-based Mercy Corps has been looking to connect with some of its celebrity supporters, to raise its profile, particularly during non-disaster times and among people who go beyond their usual donor base. The disaster relief organization started last summer, dedicating “a good chunk” of time and energy to examining what other organizations are doing in engaging the entertainment world. Out of that came a consensus to hire someone, based in New York or Los Angeles, to focus on the task and not let it fall by the wayside.

“We’d been trying to do this for some time and saw it as something to put longer-term resources behind, ultimately bringing a benefit to us, and thus, to people we serve around world. That’s always the motivation behind any move we make,” said Joy Portella, Mercy Corps’ director of communications.

“It’s been a lengthy process. We certainly thought about how we want to work with not just individual talent, but the whole entertainment industry,” she said. “It’s rare that an organization has just one or two celebrity spokesmen. The whole process that gets them involved with your organization involves networking in Los Angeles and New York, the entertainment industry.”

‘It Doesn’t Just Happen’

“We’ve had celebrities and other talent come to us before, who’ve been donors and engaged with us here and there over the years, but we haven’t had someone dedicated to those relationships and cultivating those,” said Portella. “It starts with lots of conversation and getting to know you. Think of it akin to a dating scenario: You don’t marry someone immediately, there’s some kind of courtship phase that goes on,” said Portella. “Organizations that actually hired someone who does this and dedicated someone to do it; if you do it haphazardly, it doesn’t work well,” she said. “It doesn’t just happen.”

Leigh Oblinger joined Mercy Corps this past January as its new talent relations manager, based in Los Angeles. She spent several years at the Elizabeth Glazer AIDS Foundation as well as the Tiger Woods Foundation, and has done work for Make-A-Wish America. While Mercy Corps has an “amazing global presence,” said Oblinger, it’s not quite as well known in the entertainment world, so part of her job is meeting with managers and agents, and the like. She’ll nurture relationships, following up when a celebrity makes a donation or makes mention of the charity publicly.

Mercy Corps is clear on who it’s looking for to fit its brand: Someone who presents a good, young image who can grow with the organization, or has already done some humanitarian work. “Who really speaks well, who has the kind of audience we reach out to, who’s hasn’t had a lot of drama or craziness, we wouldn’t want to be associated with that, even if that means a lesser known celebrity,” Oblinger said.

Everyone wants George Clooney or Angelina Jolie to be involved but that’s not very realistic since they already are attached to certain causes. “Every organization is looking for someone like that, with a huge profile who really seems to be engaged,” Oblinger said. “I think that’s what everyone is looking for, even if they’re not established yet, not yet picked a cause,” she said.

“It is an arduous process — finding a brand fit who is also not already aligned with another cause or charity,” said Oblinger. “We have enjoyed the endorsement of celebrities but it was generally random,” she said. Pop star Katy Perry is among those who have supported Mercy Corps on social media while R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe selected the organization as his beneficiary charity when he designed the LOVE bracelet with Cartier. Among the actors who donated to Mercy Corps in response to the Japan disaster were Cameron Diaz’s charity, Mary-Louise Parker, Carl Reiner and Jennifer Tilly.

For UNICEF, the celebrity engagement program was housed in the public relations department until this year when it became a separate department within the U.S. Fund. The department is “small and fully functioning,” according to Tamar Cohen, UNICEF’s director of celebrity engagement. She described the “courtship” as usually taking about 12 months, at which point a written memo of understanding is developed for a defined period of time, which “allows both sides to check in with each other to make sure it’s a fruitful relationship,” she said.

The American Red Cross created its Celebrity Cabinet about 10 years ago, primarily to focus on finding celebrities who have a personal story and connection to the organization. “It’s the most important link as far as determining who we invite to be a cabinet member,” said Julie Whitmer, director of celebrity and entertainment outreach for the Red Cross. The cabinet began with about a dozen celebrities — some, like Jane Seymour and Marlee Matlin, continue to be involved. Today, it has 41 members.

“Forty is a good size but when you look at when Red Cross is responding to 70,000 disasters a year, you need the support and influence of the entertainment industry,” Whitmer said.

Model Niki Taylor officially became a celebrity cabinet member in 2007 but it was not long after a 2001 accident in Atlanta – after which she needed more than 100 units of blood – that her management reached out to the Red Cross to get involved with the organization. “It’s always been close to my heart. I’ve always wanted to meet that person, who on way home from work, donated that blood that was given to me in my time of need,” said Taylor. “I wanted to say thank you to them, give back to them in a little way, for those people who donate blood every day.”

In addition to the Red Cross, Taylor works with Mercy Ministries, International Justice Mission and Victory Junction Gang. They all have a personal connection for Taylor. A passion for motorcycles and children drives her involvement with the Junction Gang, a charity supported by NASCAR driver Kyle Petty that helps chronically ill children who can’t afford to go to summer camp. Mercy Ministries helps women who don’t have the finances to pay for extended drug rehabilitation or unplanned pregnancies.

“Each one is pretty much helping people, and that’s why we’re here on Earth, to help others,” she said. Her mother also has been involved in the CARE Foundation, after the death of her sister, Krissy, in 1995, from Right Ventricular Dysplasia (RVD).

For the Red Cross, Taylor said, she’s available “whenever they call on me or whenever they need me. Some months they don’t need me.” While a participant on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice this season, she helped secure $35,000 for the Red Cross.

“The celebrity cabinet is one way we can reach the public with lifesaving messages immediately,” Whitmer said. For example, after Japan was hit by an earthquake and tsunami on a Thursday in March, cabinet members received an email from Whitmer by Friday morning, explaining what had happened, who’d been affected and what the Red Cross was doing.

With the help of technology and social media, they were able to reach millions of people with important messages through cabinet members, she said. “Celebrities generate media attention, awareness, that kind of awareness that can mobilize the public and help humanity,” she said. Every opportunity may be different. “It’s really about communication and understanding exactly what and what they want to do,” said Whitmer, whether it’s just for one disaster or a longer-term opportunity to work with them. “Every decision is based on what’s the best thing to impact the need in support for people who have been affected,” she said.

Red Cross asks celebrity supporters for a one-year commitment on the cabinet and to engage in at least three opportunities, said Whitmer, which can be tailored to the individual — “anything from a tweet to actually traveling with us.” It all depends on each individual and the opportunity, Whitmer said, adding that the charity doesn’t pay for the support on the cabinet, but in some cases assumes travel costs.

Whitmer reminds nonprofits that might be interested in working with celebrities to always keep the organization’s mission at the forefront. Also, do your research, and find celebrities with a personal connection. “Anyone can stand up and recite a talking point,” she said, but it’s much more effective if it’s heartfelt and deeply connected to the individual.

High Visibility Can Pay Off

Gretchen Carlson recalls how her mother would volunteer for “Mother’s March,” collecting for the March of Dimes (MOD) in their neighborhood when she was growing up in Minnesota. Following in her mom’s footsteps, while in high school Carlson got involved with the Minneapolis headquarters of MOD, making calls in the evenings to ask donors to pledge.

After winning the Miss America pageant in 1989, Carlson’s career as a television anchor took her around the country. It wasn’t until she became a mother eight years ago that she became very involved again with March of Dimes.

Today, as co-anchor of Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends, Carlson uses her high-visibility profile to give back. “Volunteering was a big thing in my family; my grandfather was a minister and my parents were involved in my community,” she said. “Now that I’m a mom, it’s important to send signals to kids to give back,” she said.

“I had a national platform, I wanted to be involved with something that could have a voice, that could make a difference,” Carlson said, adding that her daughter had some medical issues when she was born, which also rekindled her relationship with MOD. “I went back to the one I knew so well. Now I had a passionate reason to be involved, I could speak more eloquently and passionately about it,” she said.

Carlson said the number one charity in her life is her church, and she does some work with friends for other causes. She also serves on the board of the Miss America organization. But she is wary of spreading herself too thin. “It’s really important for people in the public eye not to be involved with too many things,” she said, believing that fewer roles can provide more impact.

“If I have a personal connection to something, I’m more than willing to give my time but you have to be careful when in a position where you have a voice that you’re not oversaturating the market,” Carlson said. MOD leaves it up to individuals how involved they want to be, but Carlson said she has two standing agreements to host specific events for the charity during the year. She also serves on MOD’s National Communication Advisory Council.

Having a national television morning show can be good vehicle for her nonprofits. “What’s great about the relationship is I can do segments on my show about March of Dimes,” Carlson said. Earlier this year, she received a letter from Gary Brown, a 9-year-old from Austin, Texas that included $500 in checks and his report card. The checks were the result of his asking friends to donate to MOD instead of getting him a birthday gift this year.

Brown told Carlson that he was inspired to raise money by a recent segment she did about MOD. “You hope if you have that kind of impact with one person,” Carlson said, that it touches even more people as well. Having a personal connection to a charity is vitally important, Carlson said. “It’s difficult to advocate for something without believing in it. People are very savvy and can tell if you really believe it,” she said. Being a celebrity charity spokesperson is not unlike product endorsements, “you’re looking for people who can sell your product,” Carlson said.

Aida Turturro, who might be best known for her role as Tony Soprano’s sister in HBO’s The Sopranos, has a soft spot for anything to do with children and animals. “I’m a crazy dog person, I love animals, I love my dog,” said Turturro, who has a 5-year-old black lab named Buddy. “A lot of charities want to be part of so many things in your life, you want to be part of it. I believe in a lot of them. Many are so good,” Turturro said.

“I think charity is so important, some people get attached for whatever reason,” she said. Turturro connected with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) through one of its events in the Hamptons a few years ago. Last year, she served as a judge in the organization’s canine talent show, which helped to promote pet adoptions. She tries to help as much as she can when she’s not busy filming. Turturro also supports charities related to rheumatoid arthritis, from which she suffers, and other organizations that her neighbors might be affected by, such as autism. “Because they call me consistently, I’m probably most active with them,” Turturro said of the ASPCA. She has no formal agreement with ASPCA but does help when she can. “Whoever asks me, I’ve done things with. Sometimes it’s just a matter of who contacts you too,” she said.

Hands-on events, such as the ASPCA’s adoption events or a charity auction/fair for a friend’s autistic organization, appeal most to Turtorro, but also organizations that fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, like children and animals.

She still gets requests from charities regularly but it was much more often when she had a high profile when The Sopranos was on the air. Remembering washing her hair with hand soap at a Denny’s restaurant bathroom sink, singer-songwriter Jewel said that her philanthropy comes from recognizing the help she received when she was young woman. “People used to look at me like a leper,” she said. “It was during the time when I was a homeless teenager that I greatly benefited from the assistance of charitable organizations and hoped I could make my own impact in the future.”

Now, as Jewel prepares for the birth of her child and co-hosts her music talent show Platinum Hit, the singer has expanded her repertoire by assisting and managing nonprofit organizations. In 1997, she established Project Clean Water along with her brother, helping secure fresh and clean water for communities around the globe. “When I developed problems with my kidneys, I couldn’t drink tap water and couldn’t afford bottled water,” said Jewel. “If I couldn’t even trust the tap water where I was living, I couldn’t even imagine what is was like in other places.”

The organization has put in about 35 wells in 15 countries in addition to partnering with other nonprofits when the relationship makes sense. Jewel’s work doesn’t only extend to her own organization though, as she is an official spokesperson for the Dallas-based Mary Kay Foundation. “They simply asked me if I could help them,” Jewel remembers. “I’m very concerned in women’s rights and they do a great job. They needed my recognition and help.”

Like most other celebrities, Jewel said that requests go through her management, adding that if her schedules allows it and she’s free, she’s more than happy to help out for a cause, but still tries to maintain a balance in her own life.

“I’ve been quite shy about being public about my charitable efforts,” she said. It’s something I’ve done quietly on my own. I am suspicious of celebrities using charity for publicity and am weary of advertising my charitable works.”

Earlier in her career, Jewel said she used to leverage her own fan base for charitable support. She would try not to be so aggressive, instead donating 50 cents of every ticket to a charitable cause.

Jewel’s laid-back approach, applies to soliciting celebrity help. Sometimes she’ll ask celebrity friends, such as singers Jason Mraz and Katy Perry, to donate autographed guitars or signed song lyrics, but tries to keep these requests to a minimum. “I know that people are really busy on the road and try not to solicit them to often,” she said. “But when I do ask, it will be limited to easy things they can do.”

Limiting his time to managing his own Jonathan Vilma Foundation, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma will often partner up with other nonprofits, but looks for specific keywords when viewing presentations. “I’m looking for terms like ‘long-term,’ when speaking with others looking to join forces,” said Vilma. “We look for foundations that have similar goals as us. We also don’t want to hear words like ‘profit.’ Once you start talking to a person, making sure they have the same vision as you is most important.”

Having parents who emigrated from Haiti during the 1970s, it only made sense to create a foundation that helped build schools and infrastructure following their devastating earthquake in 2010.

Vilma said that he does not have a business manager and many times charitable requests will go directly to him, adding that he really focuses on managing his own organization but will partner with others when the timing is appropriate.

Marc Pollick, president and founder of the Los Angeles-based Giving Back Fund, said that many times when athletes come to him looking to establish their own charitable foundations he needs to ramp back their expectations.

“Many athletes believe that raising money is a lot easier than it is, as well as having successful events. Many are unprepared to have a long-term commitment with an organization. It requires real authenticity in addition to a big gift from the athlete if they expect the public to be behind it.”

As opposed to simply donating a lump sum of money to a particular charity, Vilma said he decided to establish his own foundation because he believes that help would fall by the wayside once media coverage died down. “I think its human nature when people see tragedy and want to help, and when time passes people don’t realize they need their help,” he said. “I wanted to go into the long-term, at least 10 years.”

As a football player, Vilma said that he has an advantage attracting fellow athletes to his cause although it helps if they have a similar passion for the cause. Players who have roots in Haiti like Pierre Garcon will often come to him looking to help out.

Because his sister contracted thyroid cancer at 14, Oakland A’s relief pitcher Craig Breslow, established his Strike 3 Foundation in 2008, aimed at helping children not having to live through what his sister did. “I recognize that I’m in a pretty unique position and can influence other people, said Breslow. “I always say that it’s not necessarily contingent on name recognition. I strongly believe that anyone can find something they are passionate about.”

Dedicating between 20-30 hours a week managing his foundation, Breslow said he rarely has time to pursue other charitable ventures, but will partner up with other charities depending on what they can bring to his own organization. Breslow will make sure that the prospective partner has similar goals and mission to his.

“It’s much more difficult in partnering with like-minded organizations because we want to make sure the relationship is mutually beneficial. Opportunities to work together exist and we’ll usually join forces with children’s hospitals,” said Breslow.

Like Vilma, Breslow believed that as a baseball player, he had an added advantage in convincing baseball players to support his cause. “A kind of fraternity exists among baseball players,” he said. “It’s understood as a fellow athlete we will do other things to help each other. The response is much better now than it was before.”

Commenting on how difficult running his organization is Breslow added that it might not be for everyone, “I haven’t encouraged other athletes to create their own foundation,” he said. “From an administrative standpoint, starting a charity is a huge endeavor, but I think everyone can find a way to make a difference.” E