Charities and causes have used celebrity spokespeople since the UN enlisted Danny Kaye in 1954 to educate the public about the plight of poor children abroad. Now every not-for-profit wants a Desperate Housewife to come to its gala — some settle for a Real Housewife — and every celeb wants a photo with a sick child to run in People. Dozens of stars have posed naked for PETA's antifur ads. Irritable bowel syndrome even landed a wondrous spokeswoman; I'll never look at Lynda Carter the same way again.
You know the best of these big-hearted boldface names: Angelina, Bono, Elton, and David ... Arquette. Yes, David Arquette. If I were making a Celebs Gone Good list, he'd top it.
The typical celeb do-gooder needs car service, script approval, bottled water from Iceland's glacial highlands, and artisanal acai candy hand-wrapped by Bolivian orphans. Not David. Two days a week, you'll find him at an L.A. food pantry, cooking, cleaning, or doing whatever else he's told to do. (Great training for his off-duty hours.) Often, he works with veteran volunteer Delfia Gonzalez. (He insisted I mention Delfia Gonzalez; now I've done it twice.) "Noncelebrity volunteers like her are the backbone of charities nationwide," he says. "They deserve the praise, not me."
But as long as we're going to obsess about celebs, let's focus on folks like David. His name may be B-list but his good works are A-plus. Here are five lessons from his partnership with Feeding America, the nation's largest coalition of food pantries.
Pick a celebrity who genuinely cares. This one seems so obvious, but many charities — not to mention for-profits — lurch at the first genetically gifted goddess they can find to be the face for their brand. David isn't sanitizing his reputation or being paid. Find someone who loves you enough to work for free.
Put it in writing. Feeding America VP Phil Zepeda, who works with David, suggests a written relationship agreement that can be renewed annually. David's agreement protects him as well as Feeding America, spelling out mutual expectations and boundaries. Can you use each other's names for publicity? How many events must he attend to be an official ambassador? Clarity about details keeps both parties accountable.
A celebrity isn't a one-man team. When David meets with his reps at the United Talent Agency — think lots of suits at a long table, like on Entourage — Rene Jones, who oversees philanthropy at UTA, is always there. The message: This matters to David. He wants everyone in his life to be part of it. Feeding America communicates with David's handlers regularly to clear schedules and sync goals, and I wouldn't be surprised if he has recruited his dry cleaner. And for celebs who might be less devoted to the cause, it's important to get their teams on-side and allied with your effort.
Let him be the QB, but you be the coach. David calls plays and inspires others. (Sheryl Crow wrote a song for Feeding America because he asked.) He can deploy his army of fans and friends. Don't forget that the celeb is working for your group — but also don't forget that the best coaches know when to let the talent do their thing.
You don't want the Angelinas. You covet that shiny $20-mil-a-movie star. So do I. Not so fast, David says: "I'm lucky that I don't work as much as those guys. Because then I have the time to do stuff like this." And I'm glad he does.
Nancy Lublin is CEO of Do Something.
A version of this article appeared in the December/January 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.