Should social enterprise unleash the power of the celebrigod?

From Bob Geldof and Bono to Angelina Jolie and Annie Lennox, celebrities on a social mission are a feature of our age. It’s no secret that many endorse charities to polish their public image. But can the power of the celebrity be harnessed for good?

For good or ill, celebrities are an engrained feature of the quest to boost the public’s engagement with worthy causes. And the reigning wisdom is that this works. The UN has at least 175 celebrities on its books as goodwill ambassadors positioned to engage different audiences with everything from poverty alleviation to gender discrimination.

But this type of endorsement has for years sparked debate in the international development blogosphere and the mainstream media. It has even spawned its own vocabulary, loaded with critical undertones including words such as "celebrigod" "charitainment" and "badvocacy”. 

Should social enterprise heed the critical commentary that has emerged from a long-standing relationship between celebrity and charity? Or, when looking to reach a wider audience, should they prey to the celibrigod? 

Reaching wider audiences

Livity, a youth specialist communications agency, has dived straight into mainstream celebrity endorsement. The social enterprise has teamed up with chart-topping music star Plan B to raise awareness of the somewhereto_ project

The somewhereto_ project has won support from a range of financial backers, including the Big Lottery Fund and Nesta, to connect young people with free spaces, both physical and digital. The role of the celebrity in this case is not to fundraise. It’s about  “reaching out” to young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs), “who might not hear about the project otherwise,” says Anna Hamilos, business director at Livity.

The project aims to provide young people between the ages of 15 and 25 with tangible enterprise and employment by unlocking and transforming space. “Powerful third party endorsements enable us to amplify essential social ventures like this, which often don’t necessarily get picked up by young people,” says Hamilos.

Livity co-created the campaign with the young people it is seeking to benefit, and chose Plan B based on their input. It was all about looking for “people they think are relevant or they would listen to more, rather than working with a politician for example,” she says. 

Plan B stood out as someone who “shared our core purpose and values and could talk authentically to young people,” she continues, demonstrating that celebrity endorsement, is as much about choosing someone in the public eye that is suited to the audience, as it is approaching someone who is genuinely interested in the cause.

Hamilos explains that, “Plan B has been a great ambassador” because he is able to connect with the young people somewhereto_ works with. “He is really passionate and is completely unscripted. The rawness of the way he talks about his own experiences and motivations is really powerful for young people.”

Caution: Unpredicatability

But approach the road to celebrity endorsement with caution. Mainstream headlines have demonstrated that the unpredictability of celebrities in the public eye can do more harm than good. In 1999 supermodel Naomi Campbell fronted one of PETA's (People for the Ethical Trading of Animals) poster campaigns with the slogan, ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur’. Shortly after the campaign was launched Campbell made a mockery of PETA’s values by appearing in catwalk shows wearing fur

At the beginning of this year OXFAM made the headlines because their partnership with actress Scarlett Johansson went sour after she signed a contract with SodaStream. The Israeli soft drinks company operates in the occupied West Bank, which OXFAM believes furthers the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities they support. 

Politicians, celebrities, or both?

Politicians though not capable of reaching a mass audience, have the virtue of being far more predictable. Jane Cormack is the head of public sector marketing at the YKTO Group, which is a private marketing company that has this summer been working to promote the Outset programme.  The programme provides a range of services for deprived communities and has managed to secure the personal backing of Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Skills and Inovation.

Jane says that receiving the public support of a politician such as Vince Cable MP, “shows we are important enough to get on his agenda…it demonstrates to our business owners and also to the programme that what we are doing has his stamp of approval.”

Some social enterprises are opting for both celebrity and political endorsement. Last week, Riders For Health, which works in Africa maintaining and managing motorbikes so that health workers can reach rural villages, launched a celebrity-backed fundraiser. 

Former Grand Prix motorcycle road racer and 13-time grand prix winner Randy Mamola launched the three-month appeal. At the launch event, Mamola enthused about the work of Riders for Health, which uses “the very thing that gives so many people so much joy, the motorcycle, to help health workers deliver lifesaving health care.” 

It’s not easy to relate health issues in Africa to people in the UK. Faced with this challenge Riders are working with Mamola to reach out to motorbike enthusiasts and others who can get excited about and support the power of the motorbike to create social change.

The UK government has also promised to double every donation made to the appeal. “Every pound you give will go twice as far helping families get the healthcare they desperately need,” said International Development Secretary Justice Greening. In the case of Riders, both political and celebrity endorsement are helping to reach donors and raise funds for their work.

Social impact?

A study by Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey in the US, found that athletes, film stars and newscasters were associated with the largest increase in public donations to 500 US charities and not-for-profit-organisations.

It also concluded that relationships with celebrities allowed non-profit organisations to allocate more resources to service missions, rather than fundraising campaigns. 

Relationship crises between charities and celebrities tell us that social entrepreneurs should be wary of using a celebrity without strategy, and should always take potential communication risks into account. But evidence to date shows when used wisely politicians and celebrities alike are a powerful force for engaging audiences, boosting credibility and raising funds.

This article was co-written by Ellie Ward and Isabelle de Grave

Photo credit: Brian Gratwicke, flickr