Fundraisers are better off using celebrities in their marketing materials to encourage repeat donations or donor loyalty than to attract new donors, according to new research from the Behavioural Insights Team and the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Massachusetts.
The paper, Star Power: two field experiments investigating the effect of celebrity endorsement on charitable fundraising campaigns, which was published last week, says the research found that using celebrities in fundraising campaigns was a relatively ineffective way of increasing donations to a cause and that celebrities were useful only for bringing forward donations that would have happened anyway.
The paper, written by Michael Sanders, head of research at the BIT, focuses on two experiments designed to test the effectiveness of a celebrity’s endorsement of a charity.
It says: "If fundraisers or marketers must choose where to target their use of celebrity endorsement in their marketing materials towards either new sales or encouraging repeat sales or customer loyalty, the research suggests that the latter two would be more likely to yield positive results."
The first experiment was conducted in an investment bank in London in 2012, where celebrities – radio DJs from Capital FM and Paralympic athletes – asked a group of employees to donate a day’s salary (£500), which would be divided between Capital FM’s charity Help a London Child and a meningitis research charity. Another group was asked the same thing, but by the bank’s chief executive.
Employees who received a visit from a celebrity were much more likely to donate during the time the celebrity was present in their department, but overall there was little difference in their willingness to donate compared with that of the control group. The paper says this might show that celebrity interventions partially "crowd out" other donations.
It says that many of the people who donated when subject to the celebrity intervention would have done so later anyway.
"Part of the effect of the celebrity treatment is to move some donations forward in time," it says, concluding that the net effect of celebrity intervention over the course of a day was close to zero.
The paper adds that the celebrity visit had a significant effect only among managing directors, the highest-ranking employees at the bank.
The second experiment, conducted with almost 60,000 Marie Curie Cancer Care donors, involved one group being sent direct mail with a picture of a celebrity – the former EastEnders actor Gillian Taylforth – printed on the outside of an envelope; another group received the same mail but without any reference to the celebrity.
It found that envelopes featuring Taylforth increased donations from people who had given to the charity before, but had no real impact on so-called "cold" donors.
Summarising the findings of both experiments, the paper says: "We find the celebrities are immediately effective, but that this effect is either small or attenuates over time. More consistent effects are found, however, among participants who are more predisposed to donate at the outset."
It argues that social reinforcement – whereby people who already believe giving to be good are given a further push to donate by a celebrity – might explain why warm donors tend to respond more positively to celebrity endorsement than cold donors.