By Jeffrey Klineman
Misericordia/Heart of Mercy has been housing mentally retarded clients in Chicago for more
than 80 years. But to many Chicagoans, the charity is best known for its links to a local hero.
"There's still a lot of people who only know about Misericordia because of Coach Ditka," says Kevin P. Connelly, the organization's director of development. That would be Mike Ditka, the Hall of Fame football coach who led the Chicago Bears to their 1986 Super Bowl win.
Mr. Ditka, who is no longer coaching, first lent his support to the charity in 1982, the year he took charge of the Bears, and he maintained his connection even after he temporarily left the city in 1997 to coach the New Orleans Saints. He donates money, makes public-service announcements on behalf of the group, and helps promote its annual fund-raising golf-tournament. His involvement with the tournament, says Mr. Connelly, has doubled the number of courses the event requires.
More than 20 years after the football legend linked up with Misericordia, says Mr. Connelly, "There are many people who attend our events because of Coach Ditka's involvement. How many people have that sort of lasting appeal?"
Celebrities and charities can make a productive marriage -- with the famous satisfying their desire to help society (and perhaps burnishing their public images at the same time) and the organizations enjoying greater visibility and often an increase in donations. But when the parties are mismatched, the pairings can also result in splits as acrimonious as any high-profile Hollywood divorce -- with potential hazards for charities that have pinned too many of their hopes on a star.
Public figures, say charity managers and fund raisers, are particularly good at drawing attention to an organization's mission and giving a boost to fund-raising efforts. But nonprofit leaders still advocate screening celebrities carefully to make sure their aims and those of a charity overlap, and clearly communicating both parties' expectations.
Many public figures want to share their good fortune with worthy organizations, says Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance, in Washington. "A lot of celebrities are good people, they have good hearts and good souls," he says.
In the summer and fall of 2001, Mr. Zeitz worked with several popular young singers, including Alicia Keys and Gwen Stefani, to organize a remake of the Marvin Gaye song "What's Going On," which was eventually released to benefit both his organization and the September 11th Fund. The Global AIDS Alliance raised $208,000 from the project. "I was really impressed when I saw how blessed they felt for having been given the gift of celebrity," he recalls. "It helped them cope with their celebrity status for having received the wealth they have received. These are people who want to use music to change the world.
However, he adds, "That's a more idealistic view."The Personal Touch
Celebrity involvement often takes the form of public-service announcements or the occasional personal appearance to help a fund-raising event attract more people and garner more news coverage. For some organizations, that is all the lift they need.
Although the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, in Newark, routinely hosts entertainers, it always plans something special for its annual gala, says Jeffrey Norman, the center's vice president of public affairs. "We not only want a top-notch performer, but we want to get them to spend a little time with the donors and volunteers," he says. "If they can really engage beyond what they do on stage, that's an asset to any organization."
Over the years, the arts-center gala has featured performers like Jay Leno, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, and Lionel Richie, each of whom attended a cocktail reception, then performed for about 90 minutes before dinner. After the performance, the celebrities posed for photos with major donors. Often, it is in that post-performance schmoozing that is most beneficial to the charity, according to Mr. Norman. He notes that Mr. Richie, in particular, was able to have a positive impact. "He spent time with each group to talk to them after each photo," Mr. Norman says. "It was very real and very generous. He kept exclaiming how excited he was about the arts center's mission, and about the revitalization of the city of Newark. He really saw what was happening here, and he was eager to support it."
Mr. Norman says he believes that the singer's personal touch will help strengthen the center's relationship with its supporters for the future. "It's not always the immediate that's apparent," he says. "With the photos, the extra talking, I think he made a long-term impression with the donors. It's just another reason to enjoy coming to the arts center."
When celebrities make personal connections to their charities, their commitment deepens beyond a general wish to do good. Mr. Connelly, for example, believes that Mr. Ditka's working-class roots and Catholicism enhanced his desire to help Misericordia, which was founded by the Archdiocese of Chicago. During the coach's first tour of the facility, he met the group's executive director, Sister Rosemary Connelly (no relation to Kevin P. Connelly). Mr. Connelly believes Mr. Ditka felt a kinship to Sister Connelly and her clients from the beginning. "He really appreciates the people here," Mr. Connelly says. "He's struck up friendships with several of the residents, and they look forward to seeing each other."Preparing Stars to Shine
No matter how strongly a public figure believes in a charity's mission, it's vital to prepare them for their inevitable role as the group's public supporter, says Emily M. Newman, chief development officer at Chrysalis, a Los Angeles homeless shelter and job-retraining program that is a popular cause for many movie-industry luminaries, such as actor Nicolas Cage.
"The media turns out when you have celebrity participation," Ms. Newman says. "It becomes your job as a staffer, when there's a celebrity who might get targeted by the media, to make sure they have the knowledge that they need." Failing to do so, she says, can cause embarrassment -- for the celebrity, who may look foolish or naive in front of the press, and for the organization, which can be trivialized or misrepresented.
When prepping famous supporters for Chrysalis, she says, the group gives them its mission statement, and offers them a "sound bite" or one-line summary of the organization's work that they can repeat to the press.
"We also work hard to identify one or two standout accomplishments that are easy for people to remember," she says. There's no need, she says, to weigh them down with data: "Bear in mind that celebrities and their talent for communication can be a great asset, and that the media is often only looking for one or two quick statements about what you do and how successful you are."
In addition, celebrities take tours of the Chrysalis facility to learn about its programs firsthand. While the organization does not have a single designated celebrity spokesperson, it has been the recipient of a broad range of participation from famous supporters in both its programming and fund-raising efforts -- and that, Ms. Newman says, helps when dealing with the news media. "Where possible, we want people to be able to speak about their own impressions and time spent at Chrysalis," she says.
Telling celebrity supporters about an organization's work is important, but as public figures find out about the charity, the charity should also gauge their willingness to commit both time and money to the cause, says Marc Pollick, founder of the Giving Back Fund, which uses its Boston and Los Angeles offices to help celebrities set up charitable foundations.
The best way for a charitable organization to get the maximum benefit from their relationships with celebrities is to inform the would-be supporters, as clearly and simply as possible, what will be expected of them, Mr. Pollick says: "They're pulled in a million different directions, and focus is a problem."
One way to determine a celebrity's long-term commitment, he says, lies on the bottom line. "It's absolutely critical that celebrities donate money," he says. "Why should I, as someone who makes hundreds of times less, donate if they don't? Sure, their time is important, but the public might well say, 'If you won't put up a dollar of your money, why should I?' Yes, their time is valuable, but the fact that they are celebrities is what enables their time to be valuable. Giving shows a stronger commitment."
Despite Mr. Pollick's recommendation, many charities do not require monetary donations from their celebrity supporters. As with noncelebrities, a strong financial commitment to a cause usually accompanies in-depth involvement. But in the case of famous people, one-time associations are often likely to result in the celebrities receiving honoraria of their own, according to fund raisers. For example, when Kirk Douglas appeared at last year's annual ball held by the Jewish Home, an adult-care facility in Rockleigh, N.J., -- helping to raise $435,000 -- the home made a donation to the actor's foundation, says Melanie Cohen, the group's spokeswoman.
Some organizations are so in need of visibility -- and grateful for celebrity help -- that they shy away from also requesting donations. "It can be such an ordeal, in terms of scheduling, to get them to participate in different kinds of things that [requests for financial aid] take a back seat," says Mr. Zeitz. "We're a small, poorly funded nonprofit doing advocacy. Certainly, we could all benefit from more money. But you have to be careful about not overasking."Avoiding Controversy
Having a famous supporter onboard can give a nonprofit group wide visibility. However, that spotlight can grow uncomfortably hot if the celebrity becomes embroiled in a public controversy or personal scandal. And even the most wholesome of public figures may become burdensome to a charity if they lack commitment -- or bring unreasonable demands.
Careful screening has helped prevent some charities from entering into relationships with troubled celebrities. United Way of America, for example, has for 30 years been served by supporters who play in the National Football League -- an organization that, despite its members' popularity, has in recent years seen some of its athletes embroiled in substance abuse, and accused of domestic violence and even murder. However, the charity has not been tarnished by some football players' brushes with the law because the league does its own careful choosing of its representatives, says Theresa McKenna, vice president of the NFL/United Way Partnership Group, in Washington. To be recruited by the league and the teams for United Way work, she says, "The players need to be model citizens who believe in and exemplify through their citizenship the type of message that we're trying to deliver through the campaign."
Without a group like the National Football League to pick the most likely prospects from its own ranks, however, the process becomes akin to hiring a staff member, Mr. Pollick says. "You need to talk to a wide spectrum of people," he says, "and really need to do a thorough background check." (For more information, see "Three Steps to Recruiting Celebrity Supporters for a Charity")
There are a few basic "red flags" to heed, say charity managers who work with celebrities. "It's common sense that if someone is not getting back to you in a timely manner, that's a good indication of how business is going to go," said Stephanie Sandler, the Giving Back Fund's senior vice president. "If they're uncomfortable talking about their own charitable commitments, that would also be a red flag, because if they're noncommittal about where they're donating their own money, it would indicate that they're not really giving."
Even well-intentioned celebrities can become so high-maintenance that their demands outweigh the benefits of their support. She reiterates the need to make both sides' expectations clear at the outset. "Up front, ask what they would be looking for in return," Ms. Sandler says. "Are they expecting travel expenses for themselves, a significant other, a whole entourage? If they need first-class this and that for a dozen people, it's a real test of their commitment to you. And if you get more involved with them later on, it's just going to get worse, not better. And if you're trying to raise money, it can cut into that."
The Giving Back Fund has seen first-hand the trouble that can come from dealing with the associates of celebrities. Last year, it sued Mark Steverson, a fund trustee and lawyer for pop stars Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, Mr. Steverson's former employer, lawyer Laurence Rudolph, and a former Giving Back Fund employee, Corina Biggar, for $15-million, claiming that the trio sabotaged the fund's relationship with the two entertainers and subsequently helped them start charities without the fund's help. The suit, which was settled in December for an undisclosed sum, resulted in part from a dispute over Mr. Steverson's suggestion that the fund hire a friend of the Spears family as a fund raiser even though he had no experience in the field, according to court records.
While Ms. Sandler would not comment on the suit, she says that "a lesson that the Giving Back Fund has learned over the years is philanthropy needs to be treated like a business, and you've got to know who you are working with, whether the people you are hiring or doing business with are celebrities or not."
Another pitfall for the relationship between public figures and charities can come when an artist's marketability stands at odds with a charity's message. The Global AIDS Alliance's "What's Going On" project has originally been intended as a campaign solely to benefit international groups that fight the disease. But when, after September 11, record companies and others feared its AIDS message would be irrelevant in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the song was released to benefit the September 11th Fund as well.
However, some artists who were involved in the project when it was intended to benefit AIDS charities were upset that the money generated would now be split with another cause. And other singers feared that the song's antiwar lyrics would trigger a backlash among fans eager to retaliate for the terror attacks. "The artists might have been antiwar," says Mr. Zietz, "but their audiences at that time might not have been." The controversies, he says, hurt both the song's fund-raising efficacy and its anti-AIDS educational message.
"People who are involved in celebrity, advocacy, and cause-related work, they monitor what's being said about them, and if they get a negative response from their audience, I think celebrities modify their advocacy," Mr. Zeitz says. "Their power is only in their ability to maintain a following. If they don't have people buying their CDs, they don't have a way of helping any cause. They won't do anything to compromise it."
"Advocacy is a risk for people," he adds. "The primary objective is to sell records. They are marketers. If they try to integrate the marketing of their cause, and if there's some kind of push-back, they might retreat, they might modify how they relate to the cause. That's what I learned."
And that remains a key point of any long-term association, according to Mr. Pollick -- celebrities who are not fully commited to a charity's mission may lend their support only until it becomes inconvenient for them. An organization needs to figure out from the start why famous people are willing to help.
"Is there a personal connection, do they really believe in it to the very core of their being, or is it a way for them to get publicity?" he asks. "Because if it's the last one, it's never going to work out. Once the need for publicity runs out, they're going to be gone."
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