Get Good: Celebrities and Causes

Sherrie Deans is the executive director of the Admiral Center, a project of Living Cities that harnesses the power of celebrity to improve the lives of low-income people. Deans describes her job as equal parts “matchmaker, translator, connector” between foundations and celebrities who may share the same goals, but operate in very different worlds. In this Get Good interview, Deans talks to Fenton’s Lisa Chen about her matchmaking approach and how nonprofits can most effectively partner with celebrity advocates.

Can you describe a project the Admiral Center helped launch that would give our readers a sense of how you work?
Two come to mind. When Hurricane Katrina hit, Chris Paul was a rookie with the New Orleans Hornets, and he really wanted to give back the city that had given so much to him. He wanted to do an afterschool enrichment program because he felt that NOLA kids were missing a lot of things that make them kids–and that helped keep him out of trouble when he was growing up. We helped him forge a partnership with JPMorgan Chase to match every dollar he gave to create the CP3 Afterschool Zone, which offers programs for 150 students every day on everything from writing to sushi making and African dance. It’s now in its third year.

When Steve Harvey came to us, he knew what his issue was: Mentoring for young boys raised by single moms. He had started a small camp for boys to be in a masculine, supportive environment where they could do things that boys without dads don’t get to do, like learning about chivalry, or how to tie a tie. But the camp only has 100 slots a year for 5,000 applicants. So we’ve been working with Steve to take on the larger issue of the mentoring shortage for black boys, including a national mentor recruitment effort with Big Brothers Big Sisters and Open Society Foundations.

Let’s say a nonprofit is thinking about engaging a celebrity to advance their cause. What pointer would you have for them?
The first thing is, celebrities are human beings, and no one likes to be used. Proceed with them as you would cultivate a wealthy donor. If you want people to be deeply engaged, you need to research and acknowledge their interests and competing priorities.

Secondly, be strategic. Is it worth the hassle for you and them? Make it count. Your “ask” may not be “Come to my gala,” but something that really matters. Ask them to make an introduction, leverage their brand in some way, or help you send a broader message. I’m not sure a celebrity at a gala does anything, not to mention it’s actually a hard thing to pull off. Moving these guys around is not easy. It’s like moving a cruise ship. They don’t fly Jet Blue!

What are common misperceptions or missed opportunities you’ve witnessed in your line of work?
If you’re going to have celebrities show up at an event, make sure you get them in front of a camera so you have documentation you can market well past the moment. Cell phone cameras won’t cut it. You need quality images if you want to reproduce them on your website and in print materials.

Recruiting a celebrity for a cause is a process that takes time and attention. Can you offer advice or insight into this process? What should nonprofits be prepared for?
If you’re going to cultivate a celebrity, make sure you have the capacity to support their brand effectively. Part of why celebrities attach themselves to big organizations is they produce great product, from high-quality events to great marketing materials. You don’t want to print their picture on your ink jet printer on an 8.5” x 11” flyer! Make sure you have a good communications staff that can handle the PR that’s going to come in and an updated website. Celebrities are very conscious of what bears on their brand because it has implications for all that they do.

The Lance Armstrong doping controversy was the latest, but not the last, example of a well-known personality closely associated with a cause landing in hot water. How can nonprofits prepare or protect themselves from these types of crises?
I understand people’s apprehension but I would also say, for the most part, the public has a wonderful ability to disconnect when celebrities do bad things. As long as you respond appropriately, most people are able to say, “Oh, yeah, okay. That was [the celebrity], that wasn’t the organization.” The people who benefited from the millions Armstrong has raised wouldn’t trade it for anything. On a broader level, the closer you can keep celebrities to their authentic voice and what they already believe, the fewer challenges you’ll run into. What’s honest and human about their experience is what you want to capture.

Is there a web site, blog or publication you follow for inspiration?
I feel like I’m getting all my news from Twitter these days. [laughs] I’m not saying that’s a good thing. I live at the intersection of things, so if I walk too deeply into one lane, I can’t jump off when I need to. I was a very reluctant Twitter engager at first, and still am more of a consumer than producer. But it helps me stay connected to things. I get all my hard-hitting philanthropy info by following Living Cities. I get all my progressive news from HuffPo, and I follow all our members like Chris [Paul], Eva [Longoria], who Tweet all the time. I read the fan responses: you can see what people care about, what they respond to. It’s sort of amazing.