Associations with a high-profile name can help a charity event, explains Liliana Sanelli – if special considerations are made.

P10 image thumbnailMany charities dream of having celebrity ambassadors to help lift their profile and fundraising.

A great name attached to your charity certainly does open doors with the media, donors and corporates. Ultimately this can result in more exposure for the charity – nationally or internationally – and more money raised. Meanwhile the celebrities get to align themselves with a cause they’re passionate about.

But is this actually worth all the time and effort it takes a not-for-profit organisation to court celebrities and secure their ambassadorship?

Understand the gains

In my experience, having celebrities attend an event or be its public face will increase ticket sales and publicity, and give access to new contacts that the charity can leverage.

Olivia Newton-John has used her fame this way after surviving breast cancer, through the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness Centre in Melbourne, which is part of Austin Health.

Austin Health works closely with Olivia and her team to ensure the quality of anything she puts her name to. One such initiative is The Olivia Newton-John Gala, raising money for the Wellness Centre. The event launched in 2013 and has grown every year since. In particular, the hospital has gained access to contacts it wouldn’t have otherwise. For instance in 2014, Olivia personally asked John Farnham to perform at the gala. The pairing of these two Aussie icons, who last appeared together at the 2000 Olympics, made for a sell-out event.

Map out the boundaries

Having this level of celebrity associated with your charity is phenomenal; however it does create extra responsibilities. The value of celebrities’ personal brands comes with an ego and boundaries they won’t cross. So it’s crucial you sit down with them at the start of your courtship and specifically find out what they will and won’t do for your organisation.

Doing this helped Carers Victoria successfully enlist Charlie Pickering of TV’s The Project as ambassador of its ‘Walk to Care’ event. Charlie cares deeply about the issue of young people in aged care and for a few years he helped spread awareness about carers and young people in care. But he was very specific about what he would commit to and when. While this did limit Carers Victoria, knowing what interactions were possible with Charlie was also an opportunity to plan ahead and set clear deliverables for both parties.

Weigh up cost vs investment in a celebrity

A celebrity ambassador costs organisations in time, effort and expectations. Charities can find this out too late, unless they have an honest conversation upfront with the celebrity about what is going to happen.

An example of this was when Jerry Lewis visited Australia in 2011 to perform at events for Muscular Dystrophy Foundation Australia. Jerry donated his time and performed for free. But international celebrities require flights, accommodation, an entourage, and much more. Charities may not agree with all their requests, but fulfilling these is part and parcel of working with a celebrity. In Jerry’s case, a number of sponsorship deals could be created to cover all costs incurred from his appearances, which ultimately left the charity ahead by over $1 million.

Have damage control in place

Damage control also needs to be considered by charities working with celebrities, because the unexpected can happen. This occurred recently when Alec Baldwin cancelled his appearance at a gala dinner in Melbourne to raise awareness for Bully Zero Australia Foundation, shortly before the event. His sudden withdrawal left the organisers and the charity carrying some heavy costs. As he was the major attraction for attendees, the event had to be postponed. Charities must ensure they have event cancellation or abandonment insurance for circumstances like this, or it can prove very expensive.

A charity also risks having its message lost along with a celebrity ambassador. Unfortunately this just happened with Kristin Davis of Sex and the City fame. She came to Australia to be the spokesperson about sexual violence in refugee camps, on behalf of UNHCR. But after some of her publicity interviews didn’t go to plan, the charity was in a very awkward position, trying to maintain its brand reputation while preserving Kristin’s integrity.

7 final tips for working with celebrity ambassadors:

  1. Be very specific in the deliverables and expectations for both the charity and celebrity.
  2. Understand the financial investment of both parties.
  3. Have one point of contact for all dealings between the charity and the celebrity.
  4. Realise that international celebrities deliver a huge advantage but they come with bigger demands.
  5. Be prepared to take risks to make the ordinary become extraordinary.
  6. Give the celebrity chunks of information they can understand and digest in regards to your charity. Don’t overload them with pointless information.
  7. Make sure the celebrity fits with your brand and helps make a difference in your message. A token celebrity ambassador really is a waste of time.

Liliana Sanelli is Chief Executive Officer of the events management company, Perfect Events, and has been a leader in the Melbourne events industry for more than 16 years.


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