Paying celebrities - where do charities draw the line?

World Vision says it rewards its 'artist ambassadors'; others say they never would. Annette Rawstrone explores the true cost of star supporters

Sadie and the Hotheads, paid by World Vision
Sadie and the Hotheads, paid by World Vision

Is it ever justified to pay a famous person to support or promote a charity's cause? Celebrity agents are happy to say that it is justified and that it does happen, but charities are more reluctant to be drawn on the issue.

An exception is World Vision, which says that it rewards its 'artist ambassadors'. The international children's charity has paid £28,000 to Sadie and the Hotheads, a folk-rock band fronted by the Downton Abbey actor Elizabeth McGovern, for their "time and resources" involved in promoting the charity at their concerts.

A spokeswoman for the charity says this is part of its marketing budget, not its media spend: the latter includes the salaries of the media team and the cost of foreign trips to gain media coverage and make people aware of issues; marketing spend is for fundraising and speaking directly to donors to encourage them to sponsor children. "Very often charities say they spend no money on celebrities, but they do not take into account the marketing spend, which is hidden," she says.

World Vision's artist ambassador programme is made up of 12 acts, including the TV personality and vocal coach Carrie Grant and the comedian Jo Enright, who are paid for performing at the charity's Girls' Night Out events. When they perform, they talk about World Vision's work and their involvement with the charity.

The total fees paid to these artists for the year to September 2014 will be £106,900. The charity estimates that as a result it will recruit 636 child sponsors at the events, with a "lifetime value" of £1,053,852. "We believe this is a good return on our investment and is much more cost-effective for us than other forms of marketing, which are much less tightly targeted to an audience that is predisposed to support us," the spokeswoman says.

The British Red Cross used to take a similar line: its former artist liaison officer, David Piner, told Third Sector in 2006: "We might pay an artist to perform at a fundraising event. After all, like us, they need to earn a living." But this quote, the charity says, is now out of date. Its current policy is: "The British Red Cross does not pay celebrity ambassadors or high-profile supporters fees for the work they do with us. Where relevant, we would cover any associated costs, such as transport or accommodation for them."

Jenny Dunster, president of the Agents' Association (GB) and managing director of Whatever Artists Management, says payment of high-profile people is often discussed by the association. "Of course celebrities should expect to be paid, because half of their engagements each year are for charity," she says. "The waiters and sound people don't work for nothing, so celebrities shouldn't work for nothing either.

"On average, I receive two or three enquiries a week per artist where the caller says 'but it's for charity'. I reply that the charity is selling the tickets on the back of the talent's name. It is the artists' job; they need to earn a living and pay the bills."

Sometimes, she says, celebrities will reduce their fees if they support the charity personally or a corporate sponsor will pay them instead.

Terry Mills, director of the Big Talent Group, agrees that performers or celebrities are being used as marketing tools by the charities and should be paid. But he draws the line at celebrities being paid to give their support to a charity. "If a celebrity is speaking for the charity, then we would expect them to do so because they love the charity and want to support it, not because they are paid to do so," he says.

The children's charity the Rainbow Trust, which has many celebrity supporters including the chef Angela Hartnett and the TV presenter Vanessa Feltz, declined to comment on the issue. But spokeswomen for Oxfam and Save the Children say they never pay celebrities - not even to be the headline performers at gala nights. "We do not, nor would we ever, pay a celebrity to support our cause," says the Save spokeswoman. "We engage people who are passionate about the cause, and payment can blinker that."

The Oxfam spokeswoman says: "We don't ever pay celebrities. If a celebrity supports us, it's because they believe in Oxfam. If they speak at a gala and raise a lot of money for our cause, then of course we'll send a car to pick them up."

The rock band Coldplay are supporters of Oxfam, which joined them on tour in 2011 and 2012, displaying the charity's branding and raising money at the venues. But the charity did not pay for the privilege, the spokeswoman says.

Vicky Browning, director of CharityComms, thinks it is not common for charities to pay their celebrity supporters, but it is"certainly not unknown". She believes World Vision's distinction between marketing and media spend is valid. "If the charity paid £28,000 for leaflets to be handed out at the Sadie and the Hotheads gigs, it would be regarded as a marketing spend, so presumably World Vision sees this particular payment as a marketing or fundraising cost that can be directly related to a return on investment."

But Browning cautions that charities must make sure the public is given a clear account of what is going on.

"If donors think a celebrity is supporting something for free when in fact he or she is being paid, that can backfire," she says.

"Ideally, celebrity involvement is something that's given freely. The real value of having a celebrity on board comes when the celebrity is supporting the charity as a result of genuine belief in, and passion for, the cause."

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