If your organization regularly hosts a charity fund-raiser such as a walk, fun run, golf tournament, silent auction or other activity, you’re probably always looking for ways to make your event even more successful. One effective way is to involve one or more celebrities in your event. So we asked some association planners for their secrets to unleashing celebrity star power.
Athletes for Education (AFE) is a San Diego-based nonprofit dedicated to helping youth engage with mentors who can teach them about making healthy lifestyle choices and the importance of education. AFE regularly taps into the large base of athletes the city has and enlists their help with fund-raising events. “In San Diego, we have a great pool of athletes to pull from, and they’re very community-minded, so it’s great for us,” says a former executive director of the organization.
AFE hosted its third annual Celebrity Bowling Bash in February. “The way the sponsorship works is you bought a lane for the evening,” she explains. “You would bring your guests, and one of the athletes that we have a relationship with would come and bowl with you, so it makes it really fun.”
When asked for tips for working with celebrities, she responds, “You have to be extremely flexible, but the biggest thing is the timing.” She advises doing some research before approaching a celebrity to make sure that conflicts such as team commitments or other celebrity events won’t prevent them from participating.
She also noted that family-oriented events are very popular with celebrities. “Everyone does the black and white gala at the hotel,” she states. “But celebrities are busy. They’re traveling all over the place, so if they can bring their family, it really makes for a great event.” She added that since AFE is a charity that benefits at-risk and low-income youth, it makes perfect sense to have a family-friendly fund-raising event. “Athletes can bring their wife or their child and everybody bowls together, and they can have a great time, too.”
The AFE board brainstorms a list of potential celebrities “because everybody has different jobs and careers and might know of someone,” the former executive director says. “It’s all who you know. Maybe they’re a person third down the line, but at least that gives us an in.
“You could also do your homework on understanding what their passion is,” she notes, giving this example: “(Former MLB pitcher) Trevor Hoffman had his kidney removed, for example, so he’s really big into the Kidney Foundation. Whatever it is, if you can find a tie-in with your foundation or your mission, then they would like to support that.”
The former executive director then offered a few tips on how to contact the celebrities on your list. “For TV celebrities, they usually have most of their contact info online so you can reach out to them that way. We like to have a TV personality (at our event), as well. And then for athletes, you can go through their community relations department. Sometimes they’re inundated, so you kind of have to figure out a creative way to get to them when you want them to come to your event.
“Don’t think you have to always go ‘A list,’ ” she advises. “You can have a variety. And then you do your PR announcements with their name, and that helps to drive sponsorships and sales.
“A week before the event, we send out a very, very detailed email for information about how the event is going to run,” she explains. “(It says) ‘Your celebrity check-in is here. This is your contact. They will show you to your lane. This is what you wear. This is what’s expected of you at the event. This is how long the event is going to last. You can bring a guest. We have VIP parking for you.’ Any kind of perks you can give them, those stand out.”
She noted that it’s helpful to brainstorm ways to maximize the impact of having celebrities participate in the event. “At the bowling event, I had my athletes take a turn ever half hour making an announcement for the silent auction. I also bought brand new bowling pins, and I had each athlete sign each bowling pin and that’s what I gave to the sponsors as a parting gift at the end of the night.” She added that the celebrity also may be willing to donate an auction item such as a guitar if the celebrity is a musician or a private dinner for 10 if he or she is a celebrity chef. “You really have to think broadly about what’s popular right now,” she adds.
AFE also conducts a celebrity golf tournament where sponsors pay a higher price for their foursome if they want a celebrity to play with them. “Then you spend the whole day with them,” she explains. “It’s a really cool thing. I usually invite the spouses to the banquet afterwards, so that makes it fun, too. And that keeps the athlete around. It’s a really fun day.
“You have to figure out creative ways to raise money,” she states. “It could be having an athlete putt for you. Or, for $5 you could have an athlete bowl one of your frames. For the putting contest, you could do something fun like have the athletes putt against each other – some kind of competitive thing that makes people excited about the day.”
Ruth Handelman, marketing director for the United Way of Licking County in Newark, OH, described a creative way her organization came up with to do a quick and easy fund-raiser. When their local chamber of commerce announced they were hosting a major breakfast event where two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, who played for Ohio State University, would be the keynote speaker, they arranged to get permission to run a “Win an Archie Griffin Photo Shoot” contest. Members of the public could buy a raffle ticket for a chance to win, and 15 winners were chosen from the 500 entries. The photo shoot was then scheduled to take place immediately after the breakfast.
“All of the winners were there waiting for him when he came into the room,” Handelman explains. “It was very streamlined, so it didn’t take very much of his time at all. We’re in the midst of Ohio State country here, so having a two-time Heisman trophy winner right here from this area is pretty cool. We worked with a local photographer who donated his time to do the photos, which turned out amazing.
“The key is to be able to get somebody who’s not charging you,” she says. “We were fortunate. We weren’t charged for him to come and do this for us so there was no overhead there.” She added that Archie Griffin also good-naturedly agreed to don a United Way T-shirt for the photos. “He was a good sport. He was a very, very wonderful, kind person. It was just a good experience.”
Celebrities are typically used to being waited on, but Family Compass, a Dallas-based nonprofit that works to prevent child abuse, turns the tables by having celebrities wait on tables at its annual fund-raiser.
“For 18 years, our gala has been known as the Celebrity Waiter Gala where we had local celebrities who attended our event and basically entertained a table of 10 to raise tips for our center,” explains Tiffani Oltmanns Davis, director of development for Family Compass. “Our waiters would do silly antics like stealing silverware from the guests’ tables. They could tip in order to get their silverware back so they could eat. We had a saxophonist who would play his saxophone for tips. Miss Texas USA would sing for tips. We would have pushup contests by NFL players for tips. Or we would have a model next to an athlete and they would do a pushup contest.
“It’s a lot of fun and there’s a lot of activity going on in the ballroom that evening,” she adds. “We average about 250–300 guests at our gala. We have about 30 waiters, so at every table there’s a different theme going on.
“We try to make it really easy to give that evening,” she notes. “When the guests arrive they are assigned a bid number. The entire evening they can use that number to tip, make donations, bid on silent or live auction items, purchase raffle tickets, whatever it may be that we’re offering that evening can be charged to their bidder number, and it’s actually processed to their credit card.”
For the coming year, Family Compass is planning to change things up by using a “legends” theme instead of celebrities. “My new event co-chairs who are community volunteers and well known thought that it’s time to kind of revamp the event and move the celebrity waiter theme to a legendary theme with a level of celebrities who were just a little bit stronger. (Before) we would use the term celebrity pretty loosely: News anchors to models to reality TV stars, musicians, former NFL players, etc. Now we’re trying to up it a little bit and get more of the legendary figures at the event.”
When asked about what she’s learned about working with celebrities, Davis answers, “Every celebrity is different, that’s for sure. Some are very easygoing and laidback. It’s whatever I need. They’re even willing to help me solicit auction items or donate an auction item personally. They’ll even invite their own friends to the gala.
“Some I don’t even hear from until the week before. It just depends on the celebrity. For the most part, I would say that they’re very amenable to work with unless I have a big-time celebrity where I have to work through an agent, then that’s a different story. For our local celebrities, they’re more than willing to give their time and energy to our event because they believe in our cause, child abuse prevention.
“A lot of news anchors have a media representative you must go through,” she continues. “It’s their requirement. And then I work with them on getting their bios and pictures. If it’s a retired NFL player, a lot of times I work directly through them. Even with someone like an Emmitt Smith, we go directly to him and his wife.
“It takes all year to plan a gala of this size,” Davis continues. “Our event is typically held in April, which is child abuse prevention awareness month. Immediately after the event concludes, we start looking for our new event chair of co-chairs and choosing our honorary chairs and then immediately start recruiting our celebrities.”
When asked about the best way to contact celebrities, she responds, “It depends on their age. Some don’t communicate via email. They go old school and phone only. Some are all verbal commitment. Some I don’t ever speak to, it’s all email.
“I even work through social media nowadays to recruit celebrities. I’ve been successful. If I go to their website and find information via Google, sometimes it leads me to their Facebook account and I can send them a private message on Facebook. It’s crazy, but sometimes they’ll reply to me that way. I’ve really enjoyed using that tool.”
Family Compass also sets up a special VIP room at its annual event. “We provide a separate private room at the venue where we offer cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and we personally thank them,” Davis says. “We give them little thank-you gifts. We have our board chair and executive director Jessica (Trudeau) speak to them and kind of go through the agenda of the evening with them. We invite our sponsors and our board of directors to this back room, also, to meet and take pictures with the celebrities.
“When I’m there with the board members, we’re trying to get them pumped up and excited,” Trudeau notes, “and we tell them the importance of what we do for our community as well as how critical the funding for this event is for us and that they’re basically a part of our cause.
“I think that the reason that this event has been so successful is not only having the celebrities or legends there, but because of the engagement of the celebrities doing things that are fun that makes the event a really special event,” she continues. “It gives notoriety to the agency because in order to secure these individuals to come out and be a representative on behalf of our organization, it indicates that we’re a worthwhile organization to support.”
Davis adds, “It also makes us stand out among the thousands of luncheons and galas here in Dallas because there typically may be one speaker (there). So people are excited to come to our event year after year because they get to interact with celebrities.”
Herrmann summed up the key to working with celebrities. “It’s just being really mindful of them being there and making the most of their time in a positive way to help raise money for your organization. If they’re passionate about (your cause), then it goes hand in hand, and it comes from the heart.” AC&F