The tabloids rely on them. Broadcasters use them to boost their ratings. But how can small charities exploit the public's apparently unquenchable thirst for celebrities?
The relatively unknown local charity Action in Mental Health gained national prominence in March after convincing Hollywood superstar Jackie Chan to act as its patron. It was through a mixture of sharing the same philosophy, sheer ambition and a personal touch that this small but expanding Essex-based charity managed to bag such a heavyweight celebrity.
The charity's director, Audrey Nash, says that Chan's response to a generic letter sent to a whole raft of celebrities asking for memorabilia donations for an upcoming auction really stood out. "Others replied with a compliments slip, but Jackie's was a bit special," she says.
Chan's reply read: "If only each of us could care a little more, love a little more, spare a little time for those less fortunate than us, the world would be a much better place to live in. It is not always about money. Even a simple smile or a word of encouragement can work wonders at times."
The charity wrote back and outlined the plans it had for his donations, including using the money to open a one-stop-shop holistic centre for "joy, wellbeing and mind" and giving a signed photograph to a volunteer staff member who was a big Chan fan. In that reply the martial arts film star was asked if he would lend his name to the charity as patron. Just days after the letter was sent, the charity received a fax from Hong Kong saying that he agreed to the request.
Chan donated signed memorabilia for auction on World Mental Health Day in September to coincide with the charity's fifth birthday. He also launched the charity's Stop the Stigma campaign in March to promote more awareness of mental health. The charity, which is currently trying to find premises for the wellbeing centre, hopes to link Chan's spiritual martial arts background to the concept of the project and envisages a visit from Chan once it is up and running.
"It has meant so much because it has helped raise our profile through national and local press, and even in Northern Ireland. It has also raised awareness of the issues," says Nash. "It means we can go ahead with plans to open a health centre, start a shop and extend our services. He is the one that made it all happen, and this is just the start of it."
The value of Chan's backing cannot be overemphasised. Seven years ago, the organisation was simply a local project in east London providing mental health services. Now Nash believes the charity could become a national force.
Celebrity endorsement experts reject claims that smaller charities are less able to get celebrities onside. Mencap celebrity co-ordinator Neil Alexander, who in a previous role successfully convinced stars such as John Cleese and Dallas's JR, Larry Hagman, to do interviews for now-defunct smoking cessation magazine Stop!, claims that smaller outfits can have advantages over their national peers.
He says that busy celebrities often decline to work with national charities because it can often mean spending time out of their busy schedules to travel to London for photoshoots and launches.
"I think some celebrities prefer to do smaller, less well-known charities because they feel strongly about the cause or it's convenient because they are local," he says. Alexander points to Mencap ambassador pop singer Will Young, who is also patron of Exeter-based HIV charity Positive Action South West. The singer became involved with the charity as a student at Exeter University.
"Small charities should pore over magazines, local papers and the media to dig out celebrities that might have connections to the charity's cause," Alexander adds.
Celebrity specialists in PR agencies have been stunned by Chan's endorsement of such a small local charity. Geronimo PR associate director Peter Gilheany asks: "How on earth did they do that?"
But he adds a word of caution to small charities eager to replicate Action in Mental Health's success. Gilheany says that the patron has to be dispassionately assessed for the risk that the relationship could turn away donors, damage reputation and fail to boost income.
"Celebrities are great for getting media coverage, but media coverage does not always lead to increases in fundraising," he says.
Gilheany says the key to the relationship is the celebrity's level of participation. So questions should include: is the celebrity providing images for fundraising materials? Is he or she happy to do work with local media? Will the celebrity make personal appearances at fundraising events or even be prepared to go on a fundraising event abroad?
Channel 4's A Place in the Sun presenter Amanda Lamb is doing just that with a visit to Mexico to promote a fundraising project for housing and homelessness charity Shelter, which aims to build homes for local communities in Mexico and Kenya. Shelter celebrity officer Sarah Coombs says: "You have to make celebrities interested and passionate about the cause."
But it is personal experience that can often prompts celebrities to get involved. One such example is ex-Libertine musician Carl Barat, who recently threw his weight behind Shelter's Million Children Campaign following strong contacts the charity had with his agent. It turned out Barat himself had been homeless and was able to draw from experience when recounting how distressing homelessness is. This meant the charity was able to use a celebrity with experience of homelessness to tap into a strong music-led media campaign and reach new audiences.
"Sometimes it's important to make sure the agent feels passionately about the charity in order to get the celebrity signed up," says Coombs. "Smaller charities have to be really targeted with their asks - so if it is a diabetes charity you should find celebrities who have experience of it and hope they will be interested."
As Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity can testify, having a star on board has immeasurable benefits. TV presenter Cat Deeley is a regular supporter. Not only does she raise the profile of the charity's fundraising need, but she is also very hands-on with raising money, visits children in the hospital wards and is not shy about asking her celebrity friends to help. In December 2003 she helped organise a children's party at the Grosvenor House Hotel, where Atomic Kitten and Blazin' Squad performed for free.
GOSHCC PR officer Harriet Powner says: "Not only does celebrity support help in publicising our fundraising need - we are rebuilding two-thirds of the hospital site and need £123m over the next six years - but it can make all the difference to a child who is ill.
"For example, a young girl called Hannah was having a hard time going through chemotherapy, and we heard she loved Pop Idol singer Darius. I called his agent and, amazingly, he was able to come in and visit her. He spent an hour chatting to her, brought her presents and sang her a song - it did wonders for her."
But others warn that small charities should take a more cautious approach to celebrities. Daycare Trust chair Lisa Harker says: "There are a lot of positives celebrity endorsements can bring, but it is wrong to approach this with the view that any publicity is good publicity. You have to be sure your celebrity is well briefed and in line with your message. The danger is that in this celebrity age the mystique of having a celebrity overrides a calculated and rational decision."
Harker says that if charities are aiming for long-term relationships with celebrities, they should draw up written agreements. She points to the newly launched guidelines contained in the first ever code of practice for volunteers, published in January by the Institute of Fundraising.
The institute's head of policy and deputy chief executive Andrew Watt says: "It's not just about getting the big name on board, but also making sure you are getting the right fit so that the celebrity matches the cause he or she is supporting."
As an example, he points to comedian Lenny Henry's long-term and successful relationship with Comic Relief, where both the charity and the celebrity have a jovial side.
Key questions and emerging issues concerning the use of celebrities by charities are being thrashed out by a group of celebrity co-ordinators who meet regularly in central London. The group includes celebrity liaison staff from GOSHCC and Mencap. Its members share information on who is approaching which celebrity and attempts to identify good practice.
For Gilheany, however, smaller charities need to gauge the impact celebrities might have when set against the cost of signing them up. He says: "Celebrity endorsement is not the holy grail when it comes to increasing fundraising. In the long term, raising profile is important, but small charities with limited resources have to be strict about the time and effort spent chasing stars."
With the artist and charity liaison role now established in the third sector, the use of celebrities is likely to increase. The role has come a long way since Charles Dickens became the Great Ormond Street Hospital's first celebrity supporter and doubled the size of the hospital with the proceeds of one fundraising event.
- Equity, the trade union representing artists from actors to TV presenters, can provide contact details for a celebrity's agent. Call 0207 379 6000 or visit www.equity.org.uk
- Celebrity Agents works with celebrities, sports stars, TV and radio presenters. Call 0845 458 3707 or visit www.celebrity-agent.co.uk
- Upfront Celebrity Services claims to have contact data for 17,000 celebrities and handled celebrities for the Jeans for Genes campaign 2004. Call 0207 836 7703 or see www.celebritiesworldwide.com
- The A-list claims to have contacts with up to 15,000 celebrities, including Beyonce Knowles and Johnny Depp, and has been used by charitable organisations since 1997. The cost to access the database is $9.95 (£5.45) per month, which includes a free report on celebrities. See www.the-alist.org
- For a fun approach, use the BBC's celebrity stock exchange game Celebdaq to track how much media coverage potential celebrity supporters are getting. Celebrities are valued according to the column inches they get and you can buy and sell 'shares' in listed celebrities in an effort to be crowned the weekly Top Trader. Visit www.bbc.co.uk/celebdaq
- Keep a close watch on the local media for celebrities who live in the your charity's neighbourhood and ensure that all staff, including trustees, are asked if they have any possible celebrity contacts
- Don't send out letters that are too formal or make things complicated. Instead, use bullet points, and if they want more information, they will contact you or visit your website
- Be realistic - staff can develop overblown ideas of the impact that celebrities can have on both media profile and funding, so expectations have to be carefully managed
- Make friends with celebrity agents - if they feel passionately about the charity, you're more likely to get the celebrity signed up
- Draw up a wish-list of five celebrities who appeal to different groups you want to target, and personalise the contact approach as much as possible
- Be aware of what is going on in your charity so that you can exploit known links with celebrities and avoid any nasty surprises
- Make sure the celebrity is well briefed so you speak with one voice and share the same values without overcomplicating the message.