The proliferation of celebrity endorsements of nonprofit organizations has fundamentally transformed how groups attract national exposure. One nonprofit leader hopes more celebrities “will take a closer look at some of the organizations whose work is not hip, hot, or trendy.”
Explaining this argument, Susan Danish, the executive director of the Association of Junior Leagues International, wrote Thursday for the Chronicle of Philanthropy on the pros and cons of celebrity involvement in the “nonprofit universe.” Ultimately, Danish’s argument views celebrities as a filter for the news media. In other words, if a nonprofit or social cause lacks celebrity credentials, the media will not provide coverage, thereby stunting the group’s growth. Despite titling the piece “America’s Celebrity Obsession Shouldn’t Dictate What Causes Get Attention,” the argument actually centers on the exposure provided by news outlets rather than celebrity endorsements. (In fact, the article’s central example focuses on Nicholas Kristof and the Somaly Mam Foundation, with no explicit mention of celebrity support despite alleging it was an example “of what can happen when journalists are seduced by stars.”)
However, in closing, Danish re-focuses the piece on celebrity endorsement, asking three questions:
What can an organization devoted, say, to providing human services like foster care and after-school programs do to compete for public attention with one endorsed by Angelina Jolie? What are the chances that a grass-roots volunteer effort to boost self-esteem among minority teenagers will gain national exposure? And how can new nonprofits that lack celebrity endorsements survive and grow into the next American Red Cross or Boys & Girls Clubs of America?
While all three questions raise legitimate points, there are a few curious themes.
First, focusing on the practical side of these questions, it would appear that the author is correct – in order to become a national effort today, it may require a celebrity endorsement or two. However, knowing and recognizing this fact, an organization aspiring for national recognition should then make finding a celebrity endorsement a communications priority (though this task is certainly easier said than done). In the first question above, the author sets up two nearly identical organizations – one with celebrity support and one without. What should that second organization do? Perhaps the group should innovate different communications strategies to court a celebrity even more popular than Angelina Jolie. Sound impossible? Love it or hate it, all it took was a bucket of ice and a smartphone and the ALS Association put together a program endorsed by President George W. Bush, Michael Jordan, Vin Diesel, and hundreds of others. To borrow a phrase from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: “Complaining is not a strategy.”
In the third question above, however, the article compares new organizations and veteran organizations, but neglects to show whether the process of achieving veteran status has changed at all. To borrow from the question’s example, the Boys & Girls Clubs had humble beginnings (dating back to the mid-19th century), yet today boasts scores of celebrity endorsements. Do new nonprofits today “survive” differently? Though the tools and contexts are always changing, hard work, innovative ideas, ethical practices, and worthy goals continue to sustain organizations for generations. Even groups with celebrity endorsements won’t last on their own (see the article’s example of the Somaly Mam Foundation); rather, these organizations need to be built to sustain, with or without Angelina Jolie.
Second, focusing on the normative side of these questions, there is unquestionably an underlying assumption that national exposure is not only rewarding, but necessary. For example, why does the fictitious “grass-roots volunteer effort” in the second question need national exposure? Shouldn’t the group be focusing on the communities it seeks to serve? An organization does not have to be nationally recognized in order for it to be considered “successful” and this issue should certainly prompt discussions on scope.
While the author’s piece points to the “world’s celebrity obsession,” perhaps we are simply giving these celebrities too much credit.