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Canvas Magazine
(New Zealand Herald Magazine)

22 March 2004


Why charities love Lucy but not Robbie

In charity fundraising, celebrity endorsement can be as good as a cheque — or totally useless, writes ELEANOR BLACK.
The morning after Robbie Williams, enfant terrible of the British pop scene, screened the Child Cancer Foundation logo during his Auckland concert the good folk at the foundation danced around the office with glee, and more than a little surprise. This was platinum publicity. An international megastar had not only mentioned their charity to 50,000 fans — using their logo! instant brand recognition! — he had commanded the residents of Old Mill Rd, shamelessly crowded on to decks and lawns overlooking Western Springs stadium for a free show, to donate what they would have spent on tickets to Child Cancer. And he promised to double their money. It was almost too good to be true.

Child Cancer dropped donation envelopes in letter boxes along Old Mill Rd and waited for the money to pour in. And waited. "We got nothing from it," says chief executive Jim Barclay, flatly, three months later. "Not a dicky-bird."

Barclay, a tanned and energetic man who affectionately refers to young cancer patients as "kiddies" and "wee babies", has been in the job since only December but, after 36 years flying Skyhawks and heading New Zealand defence staff in Washington DC, is used to people doing what they're told.

He doesn't say it, but it must be particularly irritating that even Williams, who enhanced his image by associating himself with the charity, failed to come up with any cash, although strictly speaking, double of nothing is nothing.

It would have been different if Child Cancer had advance warning of Williams' intentions, says new funding development manager Wayne McKenzie. Then, collectors could have stationed themselves round the stadium to meet punters on the way out.

As it was, Williams chose Child Cancer after a discussion with his agent, took their logo off the internet without permission, and the charity's executive team knew nothing about it. They missed out on, potentially, thousands of dollars.

"Cheap trick!" cries Jude Mannion, chief executive of the Robin Hood Foundation, which helps charities market themselves, when she hears the story.

Artists such as Williams should do a lot more if they want to make the association work. Ideally he would have met the charity first, with the intention of building a relationship that would last more than one night, she says.

He should have spent the time he used making jokes about the people of Old Mill Rd to educate the crowd about Child Cancer's work. He should have followed up, asked the charity how much it had raised, and by golly, he should have reached into his own pocket.

It was an example of what can go wrong when celebrities and charities align for the purposes of making money, an increasingly popular way for both parties to try to boost their profile and appeal. And, for Child Cancer, it was a harsh business lesson because, warm fuzzies aside, children's charities are big businesses with corporate structures, business plans and bottom lines.

Depending on the strength of the economy, New Zealanders donate an average $200 to $290 million a year to civic organisations, churches and an estimated 35,000 charities, 250 of them children's charities. That's $50 to $73 for every man, woman and child, and doesn't factor in what businesses give.

Children's charities, with their adorable clients, are among the most saleable, but even they find themselves competing for our money — especially against other children's charities. Celebrity endorsements, pioneered in New Zealand by Variety The Children's Charity, are now used by most non-profit organisations hoping to hook public and corporate interest.

Variety, founded in 1927 by entertainers in the United States, relies on an ever-changing lineup of children's TV stars, singers, Shortland Street actors, newsreaders and sports figures to front ad campaigns and add sparkle to a range of high-profile, specially created events, such as the Academy Awards luncheon (at which guests paid $125 each to watch the Oscars via a live satellite feed and eat a four-course meal) and the annual Bash, a week-long car rally through the back blocks, which ended this weekend.

The Starship Foundation, astonishingly good at attracting media attention, has scored the country's top A-lister, actress Lucy Lawless — "We loooove Lucy," laughs chief executive Andrew Young. And Child Cancer? Well, they're working on that one, although Sir Peter Blake was a firm supporter and members of Team New Zealand remain loyal.

However, celebrity endorsements are far from the best fundraising strategy, says Mannion, who partners charities with businesses that offer marketing advice and big donations. In fact, celebs — especially big stars — can divert attention from the charity's work, ultimately making it harder to get the donations they need to survive.

It's critically important to choose the right person," says Young. "It's all about the fit with the cause. With Lucy [Lawless], even when she was filming Xena:Warrior Princess and was getting up at 4am and filming until midnight, she would always respond to any request at the drop of a hat. She would spend time with families at Starship, cry with the family, and often ring me from overseas to check on a particular patient.

"Other celebrities we've approached — I won't name names — have only been prepared to come here if we had reporters waiting to capture the moment."

Looking around Young's modest office, with its bare walls and plain furnishings, attempts by celebrities to wring publicity from sick children in hospital seem particularly cynical.

This is not a fat operation. Young's seven fulltime staff are squeezed into the narrow office next door to his, making endless polite phone calls to businesses and individuals who might help them.

A well-thumbed copy of PR consultant Jenni Raynish's book Getting Famous for Free in New Zealand sits on a Formica table in the nook where visitors are asked to wait. Inside are tips about forming relationships with reporters and generating photo opportunities, which Starship Foundation, led by former journalist Young, does particularly well. A casual scan of the Herald files turns up the following — November 11: Starship's heart unit is ready for action. December 4: Santa and Suzy Cato visit the hospital to boost patient morale. January 23: sisters with kidney transplants read donated books at the hospital.

"We try to make our cause very real for people and very tangible, and show how the donor dollar is supporting a child," explains Young. "We have to be out there all the time, and if we didn't do that, we'd lose huge support in a matter of months.

"As soon as you use the name Starship, that communicates a strong message to a potential donor — that it stands for excellence in children's health — and communicates a huge need, in that people realise health services are very expensive."

Every year, on the back of those news stories and relationships with businesses such ASB Bank, The Warehouse and Mercury Energy, the foundation raises $3 million to $5 million, most of which goes to the hospital and the rest to other children's health projects.

For Starship, celebrity endorsement works well, although Young does remember the launch of a new piece of high-tech equipment, when a news photographer's lens was determinedly trained on the photogenic Lawless and not the equipment.

Interestingly, Starship gets more money from trusts, bequests and gifts from wealthy patrons than any event or fundraising campaign fronted by Lawless, although Young says it is partly through attention-grabbing projects that Starship secures such gifts.

In the past decade, charities have dramatically changed the way they do business. Some have even abandoned door-to-door collections — that classic and cheapest fundraising tactic — for fear of annoying potential donors. These days we see slick advertising campaigns on the television, receive chatty newsletters in the mail, and just about every week hundreds of reporters in newsrooms all over the country get two or three or five press releases written by professional PR consultancies, often working for charities for free.

While charities prefer not to think about their publicity campaigns as being competitive — and Variety executive director Laura Langford argues they don't have to be — they are all chasing the same donors in a market where several charities can address the same need.

"I know people who are supporting us are probably supporting Heart Children as well as Starship," says McKenzie from Child Cancer, who reckons his best targets are women in their 40s and couples 50-plus. "It's not like we want to stop people giving to other organizations as well, but we need what we need to function."

Young agrees: "It's almost uncharitable to be so competitive to be charitable."

In that vein, he and Langford are discussing projects they can do together, a strategy that worked for Variety and Heart Children when they combined forces for the Gold Heart Appeal last month. A Variety initiative, this year's appeal benefited Heart Children, which offered volunteers to help with street collections and also got media coverage from their association with Variety and its celebrity contingent.

Interesting footnote: Variety changed its name from the Variety Club four years ago because people "thought it was a club for retired celebrities".

Says Langford: "You have to be very careful with the celebrity thing, that it doesn't overshadow what you do."

But for most organisations, especially the less experienced, scoring a celebrity endorsement is often viewed as the ultimate coup, although staging a major event, which helps keep a charity in the public's mind and often boasts celebrity involvement, comes a close second.

This weekend, the 14th annual Variety Bash, the biggest of Variety's events, which raises around $400,000, or one-third of the charity's $1.1 million annual target, roars into Nelson for its grand finale.

In the past week, 350 people, famous and not, have risen at daybreak, squeezed themselves into 60 exuberantly decorated vehicles in various stages of decrepitude, and visited dozens of schools, where they shared meals, played games, sang songs, danced around like loons and shook their buckets. All up they have met, entertained and overwhelmed more than 26,500 children.

It's an old-fashioned effort, and one that is well-loved in the provinces, where people don't often see television personalities such as Petra Bagust and Stacey Daniels walking down the road ... or get a chance to squirt them with a water gun.

Bash director Jill Glazewski, whose fulltime job is organising the Bash

and its three-day warm-up in October, oversaw the Crater to Lake Challenge for eight years, and has helped to organise major events for Louis Vuitton, Tourism New Zealand and NPC rugby. But nothing prepared her for the sheer scale of the Bash, which has taken over her leisure hours and robbed her of sleep.

"[One night] I woke up at midnight and got to work at 5am," she says.

"I couldn't wait. I got up and swam and went to Foodtown for the paper and it wasn't even there [yet]."

But the publicity generated by the event is gold. Mention "the Bash" to anyone under 15 and they'll tell you exactly what it is, who takes part and why. They'll probably mention the word "Variety" too.

Unsurprisingly, children's charities are among the easiest to promote, because they have the most appealing causes. Child Cancer's annual fundraising campaign, starting Monday and expected to raise $600,000, or about 10 per cent of the charity's target for the year, is fronted by 4-year-old cancer patient Rachel Sweeny, a beautiful little girl from Manukau whose big blue eyes would bore holes in the meanest bugger.

It is supported by Professionals, the real estate company, which has also given Child Cancer money towards a new building in central Auckland and bought holiday homes in Taupo and Queenstown for young cancer patients and their families to use when they need a break.

Professionals' support is well-targeted. The company sells property for profit and gives away property for charity. Or, in Mannion's terms, Professionals sells a sense of security and Child Cancer offers a sense of security to families who have lost theirs due to sudden and life-threatening illness. The relationship makes sense, there is a synchronicity there, and that, says Mannion, is the big news in the charity world. Businesses are defining their social values and supporting charities that support those values. Plus, these days it is chic to be seen to be helping unfortunates.

"Dick Hubbard's been beating this drum for years," says Mannion, eyes wide, hands gesticulating, tight curls bouncing. "People no longer go to church, [they're distrustful of] the State, and they look to businesses for their values. They, say, 'If I'm going to buy, I want to know what you stand for'."

New research by ACNielsen shows that 62 per cent of New Zealanders make consumer choices based on whether the company supports charities or worthy causes. That means they will actually choose a loaf of bread supporting, say, whale protection, over an identical loaf that stands for nothing. What's more, 84 per cent think more highly of companies that support charities.

"Social responsibility affects shareholder value," says Mannion, who quit her job as general manager of Kellogg's Oceania to start Robin Hood. In the past year, she has taught 60 charities how to better market themselves by defining their core purpose, what social statistic they address (example: 150 children in New Zealand are diagnosed with cancer every year), and what they could achieve given more money and help.

"Give it to me in facts," she says, eyebrows shooting up to her hairline as she leaps into workshop mode.

"Don't tell me you want to make the world a better place. Tell me that every year you work with 1000 at-risk kids. What unmet need is going to go unmet if you don't get help?"

Then she partners the newly clued-up charity with businesses offering money, advice and support. "Up until now they've spoken a very different language." The only problem is trying to sell charities with "unappealing" causes, such as support for domestic violence victims or drug abusers.

If it's not cute kiddies and chubby puppies, a lot of corporates don't want to know.

But here again, there is a strategy. Auckland Rape Crisis, an "unappealing" charity, calls its fundraising arm Urban Goddess, and charges busy working women for exotic pampering sessions including style makeovers and Italian cooking lessons. The money goes to the same traumatised women, but it is much easier to sell the goddess concept to corporate sponsors.

Doesn't this emphasis on marketing wizardry put a lot of pressure on already stretched charities when surely they have other things to think about? Like doing good works.

Maybe, but "the [business] that is prepared to offer their help for to have something that you can offer back. You have to have a strong brand, be marketable, have a presence, be able to provide media coverage, and have a cause that people can believe in."

So there you have it, corporate New Zealand. It's good business to help charities, although there is one proviso: simply writing a cheque is seen as self-congratulatory. You are expected to offer ideas, talent, enthusiasm for the cause. Otherwise consumers will lose faith in you and buy someone else's bread.

As for Robbie Williams, using a children's charity to enhance your image without doing your homework first could well backfire. It's not too late, Robbie — you and the people of Old Mill Rd can still open your chequebooks.