When a charity is approached by a celebrity donor, it seems like a fortuitous combination of wealth and publicity the charity should welcome. But what if the celebrity has a more problematic reputation? We all know there are inherent risks in marketing that relies on celebrities. We’ve seen marketers forced to adapt quickly when scandalous incidents by celebrities who are featured prominently in their campaigns make headlines. So how are the risks and cautions different for non-profits and their patrons? The recent, sizeable and highly publicized donation to the USO made by Charlie Sheen is a good example of this dilemma. No doubt, the USO gave serious consideration to potential issues before accepting.
When a potential donor is well known, the benefits to a charity like the USO can extend beyond the dollar amount contributed. Press coverage, blogger attention, social media dialogue and personal appearances for the celebrity all create opportunities to raise the public consciousness of the charity and its underlying cause. Timely and relevant exposure like that can be hard to come by for charities with limited marketing and promotional budgets.
Ultimately, there was no reason for the USO not to take the donation. Sheen’s transgressions all occurred before his providing substantial funds for a USO entertainment center and they are (hopefully) behind him. In addition, the USO is not centering a new campaign on the celebrity; they are simply accepting his generous gift and enabling him to speak about their organization when the opportunity arises. The fact is that Sheen’s donation has led to mentions of the USO and references to its mission of supporting our troops in both traditional and new media and news and entertainment outlets around the country. These results can only be seen as highly beneficial.
In addition, it has likely created visibility to the organization among audiences, and potential donors, the USO might not normally reach or have access to. The challenge for the USO is to keep the publicity focused on their mission and not simply on the blurb “Sheen gives money to USO.” Highlighting that Sheen’s donation is being directed to fund a domestic facility for wounded warriors returning home provides worthwhile recognition of the ongoing relevance, value and needs of the USO even as the troops deployed overseas diminish. When marketers affiliate with famous people, the idea is to use the shine of the publicity to highlight the cause of the marketer not the celebrity.