“I could never work with celebrities. Their world just seems to fake to me. They seem fake, I don’t think I could handle their egos.” Nearly twenty years ago, I spoke those words to my younger brother, Joseph. Since that time I’ve became one of the first to professionalize celebrity philanthropy for impact working with dozens of celebrity influencers to start and manage their philanthropic brands. I had the privilege of working with six-time GRAMMY Award winner Usher to launch his New Look Foundation where I served as President and CEO for over a decade. So what changed?
My perspective shifted after discovering what my friend Leigh Blake calls Fame Currency.When harnessed correctly, this currency can be used to generate large scale awareness, impact, and revenue for social ventures. That revelation is now embedded on my DNA. It influences the way I approach this work. When I moved to Detroit to join the Ford Fund team (the philanthropic arm of Ford Motor Company), within a year I was plugged into the influencer community. I didn’t set out to plug in; it just happened naturally and authentically.
As Joe and I reflected on that conversation we had nearly two decades ago, he asked what’s been the biggest lesson I have learned as it pertains to celebrity philanthropy. After rattling off a few points, he recommended that I share them with my network. So here you go, “my network.”
Here are a few proven steps you can take if you’re looking to get big name backing behind your social venture:
1.Think win-win. If you’re a social entrepreneur looking to engage a celebrity around any cause, it’s important to take a strategic approach. Ask yourself,
How does supporting this cause benefit both me and the influencer?
I know that tallying personal interest when it comes to charitable initiatives can be considered taboo but let’s just keep it real here, without some sort of mutual personal benefit, engagement will be null.
2. Does this cause match up with their passion point? This for the most part overrides everything. Does the influencer have a passion for your cause? Do they have a personal connection? For instance, The Boys and Girls Club, their “Be Great Campaign” connects with their celebrity alumni ambassadors on a deep and meaningful level. It’s a powerful nostalgia ask. Maybe it’s where they experienced that first kiss or that game-winning basket, or perhaps it’s that memorable club director who cared and connected with them. Whatever the case, the emotional connection is already in place. This is what I call a Legacy ask. It’s a no-brainer and an easy yes for most influencers to help create those kinds of experiences for another young person.
3. Does it align and help to elevate their brand? What happens when that emotional connection isn’t there? How do you build momentum around a start-up without that legacy asks? Ask yourself, does your cause’s brand align with the influencer brand?
Just because they’re an influencer and you have a good cause doesn’t mean it’s a good fit.
Influencers look at everything from mission to marketing collateral to gauge interest. Take We Day for example; they’ve been able to attract significant influencers from Big Sean to Malala. However, unlike Boys and Girls Club they can’t rely on alum. Their hook? They are young and cool. Everything from their digital presence to their events is targeted towards young people. Guess who many influencers are targeting? Yep, young people. So naturally, the brand is going to align with the brands of many influencers.
4. Does their engagement have real impact? I’ve seen it a million times…you finally secure the influencer to help your organization and then you waste the shot by having them do something trivial and low impact like attend a Chicken dinner. Would you like going to a dinner where you feel like you’re in a fish bowl and your chicken (which was already dry) gets cold because you’re constantly interrupted for autographs? Yeah me either.
I never engage an influencer just because I can. First, I get to know them.
I learn their story and what motivates and fuels them, and then when I see an opportunity to engage them in an impactful way, I reach out. In essence, they are “donating” their time, and like any donor, you have to ensure it’s a good giving experience. Here’s the other thing. To me, it’s important to engage good people. Period. If they are not good people why would I want them involved in my social venture?
When all of these elements come together, it can have unprecedented impact. Look at the work Alicia Keys is doing as co founder of Keep a Child Alive. Her impact in Africa is personal. It has transformed her into a true philanthropist and activist raising millions at her annual Black Ball. This is the power of fame currency when done the right way.