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The Famous Thrive; how can celebrities help charities succeed?

Emma Watson’s eloquent and impassioned speech on gender equality for the United Nations went viral last month, sprouting the hashtag #HeForShe which was taken up by a number of high profile male celebrities.

Emma Watson’s eloquent and impassioned speech on gender equality for the United Nations went viral last month, sprouting the hashtag #HeForShe which was taken up by a number of high profile male celebrities. Although some may since have raised issues with her message, there is no doubt that her speech has widened the conversation about gender issues. If raising awareness is the main objective, then this is an excellent example of a successful celebrity endorsement of a social movement.

In our Charity Awareness Monitor, a survey conducted with 1,000 members of the British public, we found that only 38% of people were aware of any celebrities who supported a charity. Of those, a third stated that this celebrity support had made them more aware of the charity itself and a quarter felt it had made them more aware of a particular cause. As in the example of Emma Watson, it seems having a celebrity attached to a certain charity or cause can provide a much-needed boost - for issues such as gender equality, this is potentially a huge victory. There is also the inevitable benefit that using the right celebrity might allow you to reach a new audience that might otherwise not be easy to access. In this example, I’d point to the generation of young people who grew up with the Harry Potter franchise.

However, research is consistently showing that the use of celebrity supporters is not as beneficial when it comes to converting awareness into action. Our research also found that of the 38% aware of a celebrity supporter, only 11% were prompted to donate, volunteer or campaign for the charity as a result. These results were very similar to those found in ‘Signifying the Public: Celebrity Advocacy and Post-democratic Politics’, which confirmed many of our own findings about the potential potholes for charities courting celebrity support.

As we have previously discussed in this blog, one of the challenges of celebrity endorsement is the risk of being associated with any scandal that might be linked to them. There is also the challenge of overcoming people’s view that these relationships may benefit the celebrity more than the charity and that the celebrity’s support may be nothing more than an ‘ethical’ PR stunt.

Our research also examined how a celebrity’s actions affect people’s views. They felt that a celebrity ‘donating their own money’ or ‘doing practical volunteering’ were the best ways to support the charity, while ‘attending fundraising dinners’ was the worst. This is slightly ironic given that fundraising dinners often raise large sums of money through celebrity donations, but the glamour of the event seems to raise scepticism.

Another crucial factor in successful celebrity support is motivation. We found that almost half of the public felt that the positive impact of celebrity support would be reduced “if the celebrity had no personal experience of the cause.” Emma Watson’s passionate descriptions of her own experiences of sexism may go some way to explain the reception of her speech.

Of course, there are inevitably going to be causes and charities where this is more possible. Numerous health charities have benefited from famous supporters, such as Stephen Fry’s becoming the President of Mind or Davina McCall’s recent heart wrenching video for Stand Up To Cancer discussing the death of her sister. It seems that the key to working with celebrities is ensuring that the support seems genuine, either through the actions taken or evidence that it is something they feel genuinely passionate about.

We can’t overlook the potential benefits of the right celebrity for the right campaign. For so many charities, raising awareness is a huge part of the battle and success is not as easily measurable as donations and actions. With Emma Watson’s speech, the chance of millions of young people talking about feminism is an exciting prospect, not to mention the ripple effect of reaching the fans of other celebrities supporting her message.

Following a summer of widely publicised movements like the ALS ice bucket challenge, we’ve seen how celebrity actions can amplify movements. However, in order to make the required time and resources worth it, charities can’t accept partnerships with just any famous person. It is vital they assess the wider perception of the celebrity, the motivation behind their interest and how they will support the cause. Otherwise, the charity could be risking the opposite reaction they were hoping for.

Kate Cranston-Turner

Getting on with this famously? Or is this a cause celebrity? Leave us a comment below.




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