Before I worked for and with not-for-profits directly, I thought the most important thing about any organization was what it did – literally, how the charity addressed one particular problem. That was the only thing that mattered to me when deciding where to allocate my time and donor dollars. What I’ve learned from my time on the inside is that charming potential supporters isn’t always so simple. These days, with the rise of watchdog organizations and the proliferation of multiple charities supporting the same or similar issues, sometimes what you do isn’t as important as those who say you’re doing it well. Legitimacy and credibility don’t come from action alone.
Recently, I quoted a 2011 white paper by Janelle Estes and Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group. In regards to sponsorship and endorsement issues, here’s what that same paper revealed about user behaviour:
"Users were often drawn to a non-profit or charity’s partners, sponsors, and endorsements. If an organization partnered with a non-profit, charity, or corporation, users were interested in how the parties worked together. Users also gravitated towards sponsors and endorsements. In particular, endorsements or high ratings from watchdog organizations, such as Charity Navigator, Independent Charities of America, and the American Institute of Philanthropy, communicated to users that the organization was credible and reliable. Credibility was a key consideration in order to feel comfortable donating, as mentioned in the previous section. Other types of endorsements, especially from high profile celebrities, athletes, or other public figures, convinced users that the organization was doing something right. Otherwise, well-known individuals wouldn’t support them."
In other words, it’s important to get endorsements.
With the rise of watchdog organizations all over North America (which is something we’ll talk more about in a later post), there are plenty of groups that might be able and willing to endorse your organization. I don’t want to get into the reliability of watchdog metrics (as I said, we’ll talk more about that later), but regardless of what you think about their methods, the word of a watchdog goes a long way toward engendering positive feelings and subsequent donor support in a crowded marketplace.
The aforementioned Charity Navigator is an American organization, but Canadians should check out the Toronto-based Charity Intelligence (CI) to find out if your organization has already been researched and if you can/should brag about CI’s support.
Celebrity endorsements are more complicated for a number of reasons. Celebrities can be hard to court, and sometimes, an endorsement from a celebrity can backfire if his/her public persona doesn’t jive with your potential donor base. Furthermore, some celebrities expect to be paid for not-for-profit endorsements, which can be financially prohibitive. Even so, celebrity support is a tried and true marketing idea worth looking into.
In an older article in Charity Times, for example, Suzanne Mainwaring, then director of the Noah’s Art Appeal, which raised millions for the building of a Children’s Hospital in the U.K. was quoted as saying, “For us, celebrities have made all the difference.” Her appeal was supported by endorsements from various celebrities including Catherine Zeta-Jones and Charlotte Church. “The well-known names who have supported our campaign have brought in enormous media interest,” said Mainwaring, “and then that has led to lots of donations. I would say that working with celebrities has been crucial in the fundraising strategy.”
So how can you get a celebrity on board for your organization? My first bit of advice is to aim a little lower than the A-list. Hollywood types are too hard to get, and besides, a local celeb may have more credibility and pull with your audience anyway. Seek someone relatively famous, but not unapproachable. (Consider World Vision’s recent campaign featuring Olympic Speed Skater Catriona Lemay Doan. A screen grab is above, and one of her many commercials for World Vision is below.)
Local Canadian celebrities may not be as hard to contact as their American counterparts. Use the internet to research the person you want, and try to find contact information for their agent, manager or even personal assistant. If you're lucky, you may even be able to find direct contact information for the person you're seeking. (As a journalist, I've frequently used this method to seek out interviews and have been very successful with it.) Then, simply make your pitch (and make it good). Getting a celebrity endorsement really can be this simple. You never know what's going to motivate someone to help you get ahead and it never hurts to ask.
* Some information from this post is from the Nielsen Normal Group paper called "58 Design Guidelines for Improving the Donation Process and the Usability of Essential Information on Charity and Non-Profit Websites." (Janelle Estes and Jakob Nielsen, 2011)
* Header image by Ali Farid, SXC.