Land a celebrity spokesperson

Wouldn’t it be great if your community outreach, fundraising, or mission communications would get a boost from a well-known, admired local celebrity? Have you ever watched another nonprofit capitalize on this kind of connection, and wish you had the same kind of relationship in place?

This week the Chronicle of Philanthropy aired a video chat on this subject from a national organization’s perspective in opening doors and building relationships with major stars and performers, although we’re inspired to suggest more realistic tactics for smaller organizations working with a more local celebrity—for example, a broadcast anchor or reporter, an athlete from your community’s professional sports franchise, and so on.

Here are some considerations. In many ways, the process of landing a celebrity spokesperson follows a lot of basic practices that your already know from donor development, grant-based fundraising and mission communications.

1. A genuine connection. Your success will likely depend on whether your person has first-hand experience with the social/economic/medical issue your nonprofit addresses. If not, you can still proceed, but it’s an awful lot easier when they do have this personal awareness. The other connection to consider is whether the population you serve can identify with this person—or are already fans. Don’t rule out your community artists, actors and musicians.

2. Sleuth what else he/she has done or is actively doing. Is this person already closely identified with another cause? This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for yours, too, although ideally, your celebrity would be willing to make your nonprofit his/her pet project. Meanwhile, this whole practice is about aligning your brand with this person’s brand, so do your research; if you discover that the person is engaged in some practice or behavior that contradicts what your nonprofit advocates, move on.

3. The front office. Your best way in is likely to be with the community relations person for the cultural agency, sports team or broadcast outlet. They may have a protocol in place–like a form to fill out–and/or this is a time to set a coffee date.

4. There may be a PR firm to approach. If your person has done some national media already (like appearing on a celebrity chef competition, for example), he or she may have a publicist in place, and you’d find this out online.

5. It’s not unlike cultivating a major gift. Does a board member of yours have a relationship with the organization? Do you have a six-degrees-or-less connection with the person that you’d want to employ to make an introduction?

6. As soon as you can, connect the celebrity directly with the people you serve. Invite the person for a tour. Respectfully, treat your prospect like a true “VIP”—have a board member or senior staff member act as an escort or handler, and make sure every detail is comfortable (like staying on schedule—the person probably has limited time).

7. Time your approach around an event. Give the person an active role. Asking a news anchor to emcee your awards program, or having a sports figure talk to your youth about leadership, etc., are popular choices. That way, it’s a win-win—you get the promotion and they get the personal connection that’s going to be needed to cement the relationship.

8. Use your time together wisely, with great photography and video. Obviously advance permission and arrangements are key, but don’t skimp on capturing polished images of your spokesperson with your top volunteer, star graduate, and so on. Hire a professional photographer or videographer. Armed with great shots and video, you’re ready for a real campaign, whether it’s in print or online or on a billboard. Think big and plan accordingly.

9. Build a lasting relationship. As with corporate sponsorships, this endeavor should not be a once-a-year deal. Don’t neglect this door once it’s opened, making it necessary to re-start this connection all over again for next year’s event. Personal notes, updates on successes, etc. along the way should follow the process you use with cultivating a major donor. Perhaps over time your celebrity would even accompany you on a media interview or foundation presentation. Done well, this kind of connection is possible!

10. Ideally, it’s not just your nonprofit’s needs being met. Your celebrity’s host organization—i.e., a TV station or sports franchise—may well welcome this prominent identification with one of their own with a “cause” and promote it as part of their larger organizational positioning as a community supporter. Keep an eye on this, of course, since your own brand needs to be protected as well.