PR for Nonprofits: Just for Celebrities, or for the Rest of Us Too?

By Heidi Shannon, VP of Member Services

This time of year is a particularly special one for those of us who are seniors, as we head into our last two semesters before graduating. And just as a precaution, to ensure that the graduation date in my head aligns with the requirements of the school, I made an appointment with my advisor the first week of classes. After realizing that I was missing three credits in “my plan,” we added another course to my fall schedule and began discussing the possible internships that might interest me. Aware of my desire to work in the nonprofit world, my advisor suggested “” more commonly known as “that water nonprofit that Matt Damon founded.”

I have to admit, that did sound intriguing. It turns out the headquarters for the organization is based out of Kansas City, Mo. and I would likely not meet Mr. Damon. But isn’t it fascinating that having a Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 12.13.52 AMcelebrity’s name attached to anything will make us want to buy it or be a part of it? We see this all the time in the advertising world, whether it’s an actress endorsing a makeup brand or an Olympian modeling the newest workout gear, notable people are being used all over in the media to interest the general public.

This is the same with public relations in the nonprofit world. How many pictures have we seen of celebrities reading to children in developing nations or with a shovel in their hands digging a well in some desert? When it comes to the logistics of it, it doesn’t seem likely that they put in as much time and effort as the non-celebrities that donate their time, too.

In somewhat narrower PR terms, a famous person’s product endorsement or donation to a nonprofit enhances the celebrity’s image and magnifies their credibility. However, attaching the face of someone famous to a nonprofit is a symbiotic relationship.

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And it doesn’t just stop with actors. Nonprofits need to raise money for various missions, so what better way to do so than by seeking out the big names in technology or business? Tech or business big wigs would probably love to partake in the symbiotic relationship of nonprofits. They throw their extra cash the nonprofits way, and in return they receive a good, charitable reputation.

The New York Times published an insightful article last year on Scott Harrison (charity: water’s founder) and his sensitivity toward views of the those “big name people.” In this case, Harrison was leading a 4-day trip to Ethiopia and was quoted saying, “What I don’t want is a bunch of guys flying in on a private jet to pet the poor for a couple of days…I don’t want the perception that these tech darlings aren’t like the rest of us,” (New York Times).

Harrison was right on track with how to help open the eyes of those big name donors and to make sure that the public was not misinterpreting how it was being done. Charity: water, however, has proven over and over again that they value “the rest of us.” They are currently running their “September Campaign” which encourages regular people to start their own campaigns for raising money to help “bring clean water to 100,000 people in the Sahel region of Mali and Niger” (charity: water). But the really cool part is that the organization then features those small campaigns through social media. This makes the public feel more like a celebrity and helps promote the organization at the same time.

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More and more companies are realizing that this digital world that we live in helpful when communicating to their publics, but it is also a world where the public is gaining more and more voice.

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