Charity ambassadors – A poisoned chalice?

3 February 2014 | By Cause4 staff

Celebrity endorsements and ambassadorial roles are often a PR no-brainer for charities, particularly small, up-and-coming charities, looking to increase their exposure and popularity. The connections that come with a famous figure can often bring in vital revenue, particularly at a time when Government cutbacks and a decrease in overall donations to charities are having an adverse effect on the Third Sector.

The advantages of having a celebrity ambassador are clear: increased exposure, increased revenue, and increased help for beneficiaries. As Suzanne Mainwaring, Director of the Noah’s Ark Appeal, highlights, "For us, celebrities have made all the difference", and there can be no disputing the positives that celebrities such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, Sir Ian Botham and Shirley Bassey have had towards the building of a children’s hospital in South Wales.

Recent research by Rutgers University would seem to back up Mainwaring’s claims that celebrity endorsers are positive for charities. Erica Harris, Assistant Professor of Accounting claims, "It’s easy to say that if you have a celebrity on board, you’re going to get more donations...however, we find that celebrities also offer a credibility signal to donors."

However, despite the obvious positives, there is a negative aspect to the role of celebrity ambassadors for charities. PR mogul Max Clifford made a stark warning at the Charity Commission Conference that celebrities are often searching to be a charity ambassador to raise their own profile. This should serve as a warning sign for charities, which may be looking for a quick publicity boost.

So charities should err on the side of caution when approaching a celebrity for an ambassadorial role. This is something which journalist and board member of several charities Peter Stanford outlines in a Guardian article in 2011, claiming that in his experience it is rarely a positive relationship, due to the amount of time and effort it takes to gain access and develop a relationship with a celebrity. In the same article, Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save The Children, disagrees saying ‘choosing the celebrity and the cause is critical to success... I just don’t think we’ll achieve the enormous change we need in the world...without the power of famous voices’.

Charities ultimately have to consider whether a celebrity ambassador is worth the risk. It is unclear as to what the impact really is, indeed, a 2011 survey indicated that only 1 in 5 young people would donate to a charity if they had a celebrity endorser. The possibility of negative publicity may result in a decrease in funding or donations, or negative portrayals in the media. However, celebrities can also open up a world of contacts and cash to charities that badly need extra funding to continue the great work that they do.

Do you think celebrity ambassadors are good or bad for charities? We’d love to hear your views.

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