IN THE INTERSECTING WORLDS of celebrities and public causes, two opposing clichés are locked in competition for custody of our imagination: the celebrity as superhero and the celebrity as screwup. Both images are rooted in our notion that famous people are, in some profound way, not normal — and which version we prefer at any given moment can depend on who's making the headlines. When we read, for instance, about George Clooney striving to bring democracy and health to Sudan, or Sean Penn appearing to carry on his shoulders all the troubles of Haiti as well as the rigors of overseeing a massive NGO, we can believe that exceptional people who have the power to attract exceptional attention can, under the right circumstances, do exceptional things. And when we look at Michael J. Fox's work for Parkinson's disease research, it isn't hard to construct a feel-good story of one man turning personal adversity into the kind of selfless dedication to a cause that, when combined with a high profile, really does make a difference.
That's how it works when it works well. And that's why just about every not-for-profit out there wants to enlist a celebrity — or a dozen. But as a strategy, it's perilous, not least because the American public's relationship with famous people is love/hate: We love them, but we also hate to love them — and sometimes, it's just more fun to love to hate them. An entire web-based universe from TMZ to Gawker flourishes because something in us wants to see celebrities get in over their heads and make a hash of things, thereby proving that they're nothing but dilettantes and attention junkies with zero follow-through who get involved in charity work only when they need an image overhaul or a photo op.
In fairness to celebrities, those cases are really the exceptions to the rule. In fairness to us, those exceptions can be pretty damn noisy. When we hear that Madonna's Raising Malawi charity has wasted more than 2 million pounds on a school that will never be built, it pushes half a dozen buttons (Pounds? Madonna's still pretending to be British? And didn't she get a kid from Malawi? And what the hell does she know about what Malawi needs?). When we read about Oprah Winfrey's school for girls in South Africa being shaken by allegations of abuse, a smug "Well, I guess everything she touches doesn't turn to gold" meme gets triggered. And when stories break about the now-shuttered Kanye West Foundation bestowing a grand total of $563 in grants over an entire year, suspicions that celebrity-driven charities are incompetent if not downright corrupt fuel a larger narrative of skepticism about "charity chic."
But while there's certainly a me-too quality behind some of the celebrity involvement in the currently voguish causes of developing nations' health and quake relief ("compassion" causes have always been celeb magnets), horror stories are almost as rare as tales of Damonesque superachievement. In truth, most of the time, when celebs touch down in the not-for-profit community, the results can be positive — that is, as long as the charity and the celebrity both know what they're getting into. "Celebrities are a largely cost-effective way for not-for-profits to reach a lot of eyeballs," says Zack Brisson, who until recently worked for celebrity-advocacy king John Prendergast's anti-genocide Enough Project. "But cost effective isn't the same as cost free. There's a staffing cost, there's an intellectual cost, there's a time cost, there's a brand-risk cost. If you manage it correctly, the value you get is worthwhile. If not ..." Well, if not, the word disaster is tossed around with a frequency that's surprising even for people who specialize in disaster relief. And most of the time — speaking of surprises — it's not the celebrity's fault. Not-for-profits tend to approach Hollywood with an array of misplaced or incomplete perceptions about who celebrities are, how they should be used, and what they can accomplish. Here's a guide to some of the more common land mines.
MYTH # 1
CELEBRITIES ARE INTERCHANGEABLE — AS LONG AS YOU GET SOMEONE FAMOUS, YOU'RE GOLDEN.
Funny story (well, not really). Once upon a time, there was a health-related charity that decided to use a promotion involving cupcakes to raise awareness for its cause. And not only did it want a celebrity, it didn't even have to look for one: It had a volunteer. And they all lived happily ever after, until the celebrity who volunteered was hospitalized for obesity-related health issues, and the charity realized that perhaps the image of an enormously fat famous person hawking dessert treats was not going to do what it had hoped it would.
The website looktothestars.org cross-indexes a by-no-means-comprehensive list of more than 2,500 famous people against 1,700 charities and foundations, so linking up with a public figure who has a natural connection to your cause sounds simple. But finding the right fit is trickier than simply avoiding those celebrities who can't form a coherent sentence or want to use a charity as reputation rehab. "I can't tell you how many times I've gotten a phone call asking if Bruce Springsteen can play for a benefit," says Liz Manne, a veteran independent film executive who recently took over the humanitarian organization FilmAid International. "I mean, I know inner-city-youth organizations that ask for him and actually need to be told that their group really isn't his audience." It helps to remember that celebrities are a near-constant visual presence in the lives of consumers — and the pitches most likely to lodge in our memories are usually from stars who feel like natural fits for their area of advocacy (for instance, Dwayne Johnson's connection to childhood fitness issues or Mariska Hargitay's decision to leverage the qualities of her Law & Order: SVU character to become an advocate for abused women through her Joyful Heart Foundation).
"You should be thinking, Someone out there must be genuinely interested in our cause, and how do we find out who that person is?" says film producer Bruce Cohen (American Beauty, Milk), who has brought many big names into the tent for the LGBT issues he champions. "It makes sense to say, 'If we want maximum impact for this print ad or this PSA or this fundraising dinner, we need a celebrity,' " says Cohen. "But if you just go randomly fishing for one, that's lame."
MYTH # 2
IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO HAVE A REAL RELATIONSHIP WITH A STAR.
A surprising number of not-for-profits view celebrities not as an asset but as a necessary evil, and that presupposition — which almost always leads to utter failure — often stems from the fact that to most charities, Hollywood is an alien world. That's why, especially for organizations that have (or want) a national profile, it makes sense to enlist a translator. In fact, the job of celebrity-cause liaison — a combination of matchmaker, marriage counselor, media consultant, and diplomat — is a growing professional niche. "I never thought this would be a business that could sustain me, let alone a few other people, but it is," says Chris Talbott, who cut his teeth working with Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins in the mid-1990s and now runs the Cause Effect Agency, which helps manage relationships between NGOs and the stars they crave. "For an executive in Milwaukee or Providence, the way the entertainment industry works is completely opaque. There's no reason they should know the language and mores of that world. A celebrity will have a publicist, he'll have a manager, he'll have an agent, he'll have a personal assistant, his wife might also have a personal assistant. It can get daunting," and it can also lead to an incorrect sense that the celebrity himself is just a puppet of various handlers. An intermediary can help forge a genuine one-to-one relationship.
MYTH # 3
CELEBRITIES AREN'T WORTH THE TIME AND EFFORT.
Wrong. Celebrities are worth exactly the time and effort you invest in them. More will get you more. "What I tell the organizations," says Talbott, "is you want to manage those relationships the way you would manage any high-profile ally, whether it's a large donor or a corporate partner."
The global health organization PSI has teamed with, among others, Ashley Judd, Mandy Moore, Debra Messing, and Anna Kournikova. After making more than a dozen international trips for the group, Judd has become a committed, effective representative. But that didn't happen overnight — and initially, it didn't happen publicly. "It starts with a conversation," says PSI marketing director Marshall Stowell. "And if the relationship feels right, we'll go on a first date." In Judd's case, that involved a visit overseas with a PSI rep at her side, helping to familiarize her with the group's efforts to promote malaria and HIV prevention and reproductive health. For PSI, it was an investment — a training-wheels run with very limited press. If that goes well, says Stowell, a prospective celebrity advocate will "come to Washington, meet with our technical staff, and learn more. We don't put them in front of media or leaders or donors until they're comfortable and we're comfortable."
"Long term are the key words," says Talbott. "Get to know the celebrity. Find out where there are weak spots and then coach them and teach them. The long-term thing is important because that way, if they get something wrong, you can review the tape: 'You know what? That was awesome, but there's one thing we want to tweak.' If you stick with it, you can develop an incredibly articulate spokesperson."
MYTH # 4
CELEBRITIES ARE AIRHEADS: BEWARE ANY IDEAS THEY OFFER!
"All too often, people forget that high-profile artists are artists," says FilmAid's Manne. "And because they're not policy wonks, they may have a unique way of looking at something and crystallizing it in a way that a policy wonk couldn't. Engage with that." Manne points to the 2008 Obama campaign, in particular the attention-grabbing videos created by Will.i.am ("Yes We Can") and Sarah Silverman (who advocated "The Great Schlep" to encourage Florida voting) as examples of performers knowing how to deploy their own particular skills for a cause.
What's attractive about celebrities isn't that they're famous; it's why they're famous — usually for the kind of creative abilities in which people in the not-for-profit sector are deficient. So listen to them, and consider their particular gifts. Working with the group Heifer International, which provides livestock and sustainability training to families in developing countries, Talbott helped craft spots in which Food Network host Alton Brown explained Heifer's approach in his own terms; the result felt like an extension of his show Good Eats rather than a generic ad whose text could have been rattled off by anyone. The PSAs caught the eye of a producer for The Colbert Report and that led to the big win: a six-minute interview in which Colbert, in character, professed bewilderment ("I think the last thing these poor people need are pets!") while Heifer's West Africa regional director Elizabeth Bintliff good-humoredly explained the group's goals. The result was a near-perfect appropriation of a celebrity — Colbert — and a huge national spotlight.
MYTH # 5
WITHOUT TRAINING, CELEBRITIES ARE SHOW PONIES WHO MAKE A MESS WHEN HAULED OUT IN PUBLIC.
Not true at all!
Okay, sometimes true. But let's be generous. Most celebs know that they don't make very good policy wonks. But they're remarkably shrewd brand managers — it's part of what they do for a living. And they're at least as concerned with the potential for screwups as the organization is. Using them correctly means not blitzing them with more information than they want or need, starting with the first pitch. "When you put an idea in front of them, you want to come off as someone who's savvy," says Talbott, "someone who's not going to send a 10-page email but a smart, short request that will make them think, Oh, this person gets my life. They get my schedule. This makes sense."
Once they're aboard, keep things relatively simple. "I've seen organizations hand an artist the kind of briefing binder you'd give to a lawyer," says Manne. "And it's like, Oh, great, you just put one of your staff people through a gigantic headache for nothing. Give them a single page with bullet points and a couple of articles — they'll dig deeper if they wish." There are Penns and Clooneys who want to know everything and are capable of absorbing vast amounts of data. But for most others, says Brisson, "give them materials that are digestible, that will help them understand the policy depths of what you're working on without drowning them."
And sometimes the greatest value of a public figure isn't in public view — it's in private. That's especially true for smaller organizations looking to make an impression with leaders, legislators, and high-end corporate partners. "Although Washington doesn't really understand celebrities, they still get all giddy around them," says Brisson. "When George Clooney and Ben Affleck show up on the Hill, different doors open. President Obama's inviting them over. Congressional leaders are suddenly starry-eyed. It's amazing to watch the access they get — Annie Duke can get half a dozen meetings that would never happen for the policy director of some think tank."
As a bonus, the celebrities themselves enjoy it. PSI's Stowell says that for his organization, the use of people like Ashley Judd is "more narrowcasting than broadcasting. Yes, she does general media, but the work that's critical is that she helps to represent us among lawmakers, thought leaders, donor governments, and foundations." That's also true when planning a fundraiser; sometimes there's more to gain from courting a small group of high-end donors who will pay top dollar for an intimate dinner with a big name than in throwing that big name on stage for five minutes in front of 300 people.
Knowing the arena in which your celebrity will excel is part of the basic rule here. Do your homework, starting with that initial Google search of your prospective celebrity's name followed by any or all of the following words and phrases: gaffe, crack-up, arrest, rehab, nipple slip, apologizes, erratic, sex tape, court, mug shot, fail, Sheen. Get to know the famous person with whom you're about to work. When they're walking a red carpet and somebody shoves a mic in their face and says, "Why is clean water important?" are they going to have a clear, articulate 20-second sound bite ready, or are they going to have a deer-in-the-headlights moment in which they stammer something about how they just couldn't live without their bottle of Pellegrino? Learn their skill sets, prep them accordingly, and resist the temptation to beg them to hawk your cause every time they see the red light of a camera. "Treat this as a long-term partnership, be consistent, and help them. Everybody goes into this presumably wanting to be forces for good and to help make the world a better place. You can't go into these relationships saying, 'I'm going to use this celebrity,' " says Manne. "If you do, you've already lost."
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.