It's the holidays and a global pandemic is still happening... so I've taken up the pastime of binge-watching TV! Bridgerton anyone? One of my guilty pleasures in life is reality television. When Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives came out, it went on my list immediately!
Executive produced by Bollywood director/ screenwriter/ actor/ TV personality Karan Johar, Fabulous Lives follows four women in Mumbai's upper crust: Seema Khan, Maheep Kapoor, Bhavana Pandey, and Neelam Kothari. These ladies have been friends for decades and are all connected to the Bollywood scene: they have played major parts in films and/or their spouses have. Between scenes in the women's homes with their families, we observe the women pursue entrepreneurship in jewelry design, high fashion, and retail. We also see the women attend exclusive parties, jet set to Doha, and of course, get into a few disagreements. (It is a reality show after all!)
What I didn't expect to see was a volunteering scene! In episode five of the show, we observe the ladies supporting the Mahim Beach Cleanup by actively picking up beach litter.
I was fascinated by this scene for several reasons:
- I'm passionate about sustainability and try to minimize waste. No affiliation/ dollars earned here but two companies I discovered recently to help with this in the personal hygiene department are: Green and Frugal and Ethique
- I have a background in conservation science
- I once facilitated a Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup event on Toronto's Woodbine Beach for WWF-Canada
- I love learning about how volunteer engagement happens outside of the Western World and I'm eager to learn more from international colleagues
These eight minutes of reality TV escapism demonstrated some key principles in volunteer engagement:
Principle 1) Communicate how to dress for the role
Although Bhavana wore gumboots with a small heel, the ladies left their stilettos and ball gowns at home in favour of jeans, close-toed shoes, ball caps, and t-shirts. Kudos to the organizers for communicating this in advance.
Every volunteer participating (celebrity or not) was dressed appropriately to pick up litter on the beach. When filmmaker Mozez Singh arrives in a Prada tracksuit and shades, the ladies poke fun at him. Prada tracksuit or Walmart tracksuit- Mozez is able to perform the role comfortably and safely, which is all that matters.
Principle 2) Don't skip out on orientation and training
Before these celebrity volunteers pick up one piece of shoreline garbage, they are introduced to Rabia Tewari and Indranil Sengupta, Mahim Beach Cleanup's co-founders. This introduction is artfully done by another volunteer with a strong passion for the cause: producer and actor Pragya Kapoor.
She orients the ladies by explaining that this beach cleanup has been going on every Saturday for two years. Then, Rabia and Indranil pass around equipment (gloves and buckets) and show this group the area they are responsible for. Volunteers are trained while being closely supervised, so they can ask questions about separating the plastic from sand and about the types of garbage they find. Rabia and Indranil patiently answered questions while leading their team of celeb volunteers by example- literally digging through sand and garbage themselves.
Principle 3) Demonstrate impact
I probably write this in every blog but I will write it again: Volunteers want to be recognized by knowing the impact of their work! By setting a realistic goal for the ladies, the cleanup organizers knew that at the end of their short shift, they would be able to take away a visual of their accomplishments. Mid-shift, Indranil says "see the difference you've made already". These words of encouragement pushed the celebrity volunteers to complete their task, even as their backs started to hurt.
In her "confessional" interview, Bhavana looks elated as she explains, "We must have worked together on it for maybe an hour, hour and a half. And we actually managed to clean a big chunk of the beach. That made me feel really good." Bhavana's reaction is indicative of an excellent volunteer experience: she became more connected to the organization's mission and saw evidence of her time making a difference.
Let's move beyond my analysis of reality TV and take a deeper dive into how celebrities can use their fame to move an organization's mission forward in ways we "regular folk" cannot.
With the rise of social media and reality TV, the concept of celebrity has evolved. To be "known", one no longer needs to have a record contract or play in the major leagues. The rise of TikTok celebrities, Instagram influencers, and YouTube personalities is not only among us but has overtaken pop culture. Every subculture from manga to parkour to cat fancy has its own fanbase and celebrity culture. "[Y]ou can absolutely find your tribe on the internet and they can be from all around the world."
Fundraising is a key opportunity to engage celebrity volunteers. Financially flush celebrities are likely to put both their time and money behind a cause they're passionate about. Traditionally, fundraising professionals have invited celebrities to participate in or perform at events. This win-win opens up the cause to new audiences (a celebrity's fans) and shows the world that the celebrity is an active citizen and socially responsible.
From time to time, organizations would auction off "meet-and-greet" opportunities or include them as part of VIP ticket packages at live events. New platforms like cameo.com allow celebrities to donate their time and talent by creating personalized videos for their fans, for a donation. COVID-19 has undoubtedly shifted both the entertainment and event landscapes; smart organizations will pivot accordingly.
Awareness-raising is another opportunity to engage celebrity volunteers. In October 2020, American celebrities like Tiffany Haddish, Amy Schumer, and Naomi Campbell participated in a "naked ballot" video for Represent Us. Their fame helped the organization reach many voters who may not have known about how to correctly submit mail-in election ballots.
In my opinion, the best celebrity awareness-raising happens when a famous individual was personally impacted by the cause. Through benefit concerts, financial donations, and even auctioning off personal items, Justin Beiber has repeatedly supported House of Blessing, a food bank that once helped him and his mom. This is one of the reasons I'm a Belieber- his songs are also pretty catchy.
I personally haven't had the experience of engaging a celebrity volunteer, so I'd love to hear from readers who have. I can see volunteer celebrity engagement starting from two different points: organization initiated, or celebrity initiated.
Either way, the celebrity should be matched with a good-fit role (based on their interests, availability, and skills) and asked directly if they want to employ their fame to support the organization. Just like we cannot assume that every accountant wants to be board treasurer, we cannot assume that every celebrity wants to do what they do for their "day job" in their volunteer role. Maybe the celebrity you're engaging with is not interested in more photo-ops and MC duties. Or maybe they are. Just ask!
I would recommend collaborating with colleagues with communications to ensure that the celebrity (and/or their social media manager) has the correct messaging about the organization, especially if the celebrity enters a public-facing or awareness-raising role. This is an extension of the orientation and training that all volunteers should receive.
Finally, when it comes to recognition and stewardship, give the celebrity personalized treatment- but not because of their fame. Every volunteer deserves recognition and stewardship that matches their preferences. If a volunteer (celebrity or not) expresses that they prefer not to be recognized with awards, respect that wish. Even if it feels like your organization will lose out on media coverage and new connections, the trusting relationship you have built with the volunteer is much more valuable.
It's almost a new year, and this blog has taught me that inspiration can strike anywhere- even reality TV bingeing! Thank you for reading. As always, please share your take on the topic in the comments, or send me a message!