Understanding what attracts donors is vital to effectively appealing to an existing donor base or to expand the base. Some prominent celebrities in the nonprofit world are Bono (One Campaign), Mary Tyler Moore (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), Bon Jovi (Philadelphia Soul Charitable Foundation), and Michael J. Fox (Foundation for Parkinson’s Research). The prominence of celebrity spokespeople would lead one to think that celebrities are extremely influential in attracting donors. But, how can we be so sure about this?
Cone, a Boston based brand strategy and communications agency, conducted a survey in 2006 to find out what influences people’s decision to support a cause. So, what did their survey report as having the greatest impact on donors? Celebrities? Friends? Family? Places of worship?
Surprisingly, celebrities were influential to only 15% of the people surveyed. The most common influence was family and friends (with more than 75% of those surveyed identifying it as the major influence). If this is the case, why is there so much commotion around celebrities and their causes? It seems that celebrities tend to give a campaign an extra edge. For example, Mary Tyler Moore acts as the JDRF’s international representative and has often represented the organization in its hearings with Congress. The ability of an organization to have a celebrity dedicate so much time and effort to a cause can be an effective means to influence other people of status, such as elected officials.
The effectiveness of celebrities is of course dependent on a nonprofit's communications and marketing strategy. It's also dependant on timing. For example, during crises, celebrities seem to make a noticeable difference. During Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, celebrities were vital. The attention they received and the pleas they made to the public for donations were exceptionally effective. Many celebrities took a stand on this crisis and even made their own donations. Bono and the One Campaign have had an interesting effect on the way AIDS is perceived. They have changed the perception of the AIDS crisis to that of an ongoing problem, rather than as a short-term international crisis.
So, on a day to day basis, the average person is not likely to be too swayed by a celebrity to become a donor. However, if a celebrity is used in the right manner, (i.e. during a crisis or in more formal settings) their contribution and public support can prove to be very important to a nonprofit and its image.
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The "2006 Cone Nonprofit Research" survey which is referred to above is not yet published online, but for other Cone reports visit their research site.