Celebs x Volunteer Engagement: An Interview with Dana Litwin
Dana Litwin, CVA is a volunteer engagement consultant from San Francisco. She is also the host and producer of "Dana's Priceless Advice with Leaders of Volunteers". Check out this fantastic YouTube channel for tips, information, and interviews on volunteer engagement.
I was honoured to be the first #TuesdayTips interview Dana did in 2021. We had a great conversation about finding champions on your team who "get" volunteer engagement and can help you move volunteer engagement strategy and organizational goals forward.
Dana is a reader of this blog (thank you!) and has experience engaging celebrity volunteers- something I'm very curious about. She graciously answered my questions and shared her advice through an interview, which I am sharing here. Enjoy!
JPP: Dana, thank you so much for responding to my post on celebrity volunteers on the Volunteer Engagement Professionals - connection & camaraderie Facebook group. Since you’ve engaged celebrity volunteers before- can you tell me a little more about how each of the relationships started?
DL: I've been involved with 4 categories of engaging “celebrity” volunteers:
The celebrity already has a relationship with the agency
The celebrity requests volunteer
Cold call to celebrity
The easiest situation, of course, is when the agency already has a strong relationship with the celebrity, or if someone in the agency (paid or volunteer) has a close family or friend connection to the famous person. In a few of these cases, the agency had annual fundraisers centred around the celebrity’s help and connections. I have one client whose founder is a globally well-loved performer, who serves on the Board and does the usual day to day work in their role, just as any other good Board member would: budget meetings, Robert's Rules of Order, etc.
My experience with celebrities making volunteer-opportunity requests have been about half and half, either:
High maintenance (they want the volunteering experience for PR and entirely on their terms for time, place, and type of task)
Or low-key (just want to help out and blend in with the team)
I've worked on teams that have tried cold calling celebrities to volunteer. To be honest, it rarely works. But, I have seen a very savvy Director of Development go through a list of celebrities’ agents. I think she contacted at least twenty before a celeb was interested in an appearance at the gala fundraiser, as a volunteer MC. In this case, the celeb was lovely and not too high maintenance, but we did have to instruct volunteers and paid staff to be respectful about asking for photos or autographs.
In my other experience of cold calling and booking celebrities, they were not working as volunteers. The agency paid them an appearance fee and charged attendees and donors for photos or autographs as part of the fundraising (also, silent auction and ticket price).
JPP: Yes, I will take a warm call over a cold call any day! This also makes me wonder about how many celebrities are supporting causes because they've been paid an appearance fee- perhaps more than we think? Please tell me about the politicians- I'm fascinated especially since you live in the US and it is so hard to keep our eyes off of US politics these days.
DL: Politicians (or their family members who sincerely want to volunteer) are an entirely different and complicated situation; they have extra concerns for their brand and image, the legality of their actions favouring certain organizations, and ethical issues.
One example is a teen nephew of a famous national politician who wanted to do a semester volunteer internship with us. The agency at the time did not allow minors as volunteers. Agency leadership decided the positive relationship with the politician was worth the expense of having lawyers draw up a specific and very long release of liability and make an exception for this teen. He was a nice kid, did a good job - he was embarrassed that there was any hassle to get him on board and grateful for his internship.
JPP: Yes, I would be embarrassed too. But it sounds like the experience went well for both parties. In your response to my Facebook post, you mentioned that some of the celebrities you’ve engaged “wanted zero extra publicity (to be a “normal” person), and others… had built-in PR, social media… extra paperwork” etc. I’d love to hear about how you worked with these celebrities who had extra requirements. What was that like?
DL: In my experience with another politician volunteer, this individual required a lot of communication and paperwork through official channels by the necessity of their position. At the time, they were an Obama administration cabinet member. So, my agency had to closely coordinate for weeks with the US Secret Service and FBI and local law enforcement for security measures, and media.
The relationship started as calls to various local and state politicians who were already friends or fans of our agency. We wanted to get an introduction to politicians on our shortlist for an event. We got an intro to this cabinet member, who was very enthusiastic to volunteer!
From that point forward, the agency had to commit to spending a considerable amount of human and capital resources. The day-to-day communication about this volunteer was between the Executive Assistant of our agency’s General Manager and the Chief of Staff with the cabinet member. My agency’s entire External Affairs Department and I were in the loop on calls and emails, and I was the lead on the event production and volunteer activities for our special volunteer.
The cabinet member cancelled their appearance at our event at the last minute, as they were still active in the administration and had to stay in DC for urgent business. The event went forward without them. And while there were many other volunteers who did great work that day and our organization achieved other goals, but the result was much less media coverage.
JPP: That really makes me think that organizations need to do a full cost-benefit analysis around engaging particular celebrities, especially politicians who are actively serving if media coverage is one of their primary goals for the relationship. Did you ever receive pressure to engage celebrities who expressed that they’d like to be treated “normally” with media-facing opportunities?
DL: Yes, the organization wanted a famous musician from the San Francisco Bay Area to do an appearance at a fundraising event, but the goal was “big-name and PR blitz”. I knew him as a family friend, so I did the initial contact, then stayed in the loop with emails and calls with the Development Department and the musician’s manager.
It was clear he loved the mission of the agency but didn’t want a ton of PR, and I had to be mindful to not hurt our family’s friendship. I struggled to walk the fine line of just enough media and PR for the agency, but not a “circus” around the celebrity on the day of the event. This was in the early 2000s, so social media was not quite a thing yet. There was a detailed contract for behaviour, photos/media, security, food, and task expectations for the musician and anyone interacting with him during the event. It all went well; he's a very good guy, and totally nice. Plus, he worked hard at the event!
JPP: We don’t need to look further than the Kardashian clan to see that fame begets fame, and nepotism is certainly involved (whether overtly or more discreetly) in celebrity culture. What is your advice for handling celebrity-adjacent volunteer candidates? Especially when the celebrity is a volunteer and/or donor themselves.
DL: Fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with reality-show families like the Kardashians! The celebrity board member and founder I mentioned earlier has close relatives as high-level volunteers in the organization, and from my interactions with them, they are also just as lovely, grounded, and dedicated to the work and mission as the founder.
My story about the politician’s nephew is another example. Maybe this was not worth it for the cost to the agency on paper, but the kid was a great volunteer intern.
I personally do not have any horror stories for this situation, but I’ve heard plenty of unpleasant examples from colleagues that have been pressured by their agency leadership to let a famous donor’s relative work off court-ordered community service hours. Most of the time the offences are DUI or low-level drug charges, and prime examples of white and class privilege at play.
JPP: Yikes, that's terrible! Speaking of DUIs, do you have any advice for engaging with celebrities who want or need to do "image rehab"?
DL: It goes back to knowing the why. In the case of a celebrity reaching out to do court-ordered service hours, that can be a boon to an agency for PR, or a liability and management nightmare if the celeb has addiction or behaviour problems that got them in trouble in the first place. I turned away a C-list reality show star who first called, then just dropped in because he had a bad reputation for rage, abusive behaviour, and substance abuse.
If a celebrity or politician needs some good PR to distract from a scandal, then the agency they contact (or drop into, with full entourage) must seriously evaluate the brand and image damage that could occur from associating with that person. Maybe the benefit of earned media or donations for hosting the fallen-star is worth the hassle, or maybe not. Often celebs in trouble and needing a positive-PR stunt will also make a large donation to the NPO where they want (or are assigned by the court) to work. It’s also possible someone just had a bad day, got caught up in addiction but now is committed to treatment, and can genuinely work to be better. If an organization helped that person while they were down-and-out, that could become a profound relationship with the celeb later as an advocate, donor, and volunteer.
As #LeadersOfVolunteers we have the right to turn down any potential volunteer as not a good fit, even if that person is famous. Ideally, you have a written policy that backs you up with standards of conduct and requirements for volunteers that are equitable, accessible, and fair (not discriminatory because of race, gender, etc.). One of my #TuesdayTips is “Jerk is not a protected class!”- none of us get paid enough to work with anyone abusive and toxic, no matter their level of fame and fortune.
JPP: "Jerk is not a protected class" I love that and completely agree! As someone who watches reality TV, hearing you talk about C-list reality stars piques my interest. How does celeb recognizability impact the type or amount of work that goes into engaging them?
DL: The celeb’s management team will absolutely direct how their client is handled, so often there isn’t much of a choice for me or anyone else working with that famous person beyond what the agency can get into the contract terms and volunteer agreement.
I’ve worked with two A-listers, and unless they are a major donor, founder, or board member for your organization, honestly do not waste your time trying to engage them because they are just too busy and in-demand all the time.
The funny thing about fame tiers is that most celebrities who are not A-list think they are, or consider themselves one or two levels up from their actual ranking, and are scrambling to rise up the fame-pyramid. Also, recognizability is relative; I am not going to recognize most big sports figures, and certainly never a D or E-list reality TV show star. I am going to know a D or E-list sci-fi tv show actor, or indie musician, that my colleagues would never be able to identify without Wikipedia.
Hopefully, any tier of celebrity volunteer has an experience that makes them feel as welcome and part of the team as anyone else. People are people, and whether someone is rich or famous has nothing to do with how kind or mean they are in their personality and values.
JPP: Yes, people are people. One of the sayings I've used many times is "volunteers are people and people are complicated". Celebrity just adds another factor! As we wrap up, what is your top piece of advice for leaders of volunteers who are engaging with a celebrity for the first time?
DL: My main tip is to have everything and anything about their participation IN WRITING, if possible - some famous people might appear with little or no notice as last-minute drop-ins. Most likely the celeb’s team of agents, lawyers, and managers will require a special contract or NDA, media approval terms, riders (e.g. must have this brand of bottled water, etc.), and all the rest.
If for some reason the celeb does NOT offer a draft document, then work with your organization's legal and PR team to draft exactly what will happen in writing:
What is required by the organization (e.g. dress code, the minimum age for volunteering)
What is expected for the celeb to do
Finally, I would recommend an in-person (or these days, video conference) training to the rest of the organization's team on how they treat and interact with the celeb (autographs, touching, photos, etc.).
JPP: Yes, it all goes back to expectation management! And I love your tip for making sure the entire organization's team is crystal clear on those expectations. I have one last question for you: what's your top piece of advice for organizations that are interested in recruiting celebrities to volunteer?
DL: My top piece of advice is to be absolutely clear and in agreement on why the organization wants to engage a celebrity, then work on the who and how.
It’s a remarkably small world (ever play “6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon”?), so start by asking staff, volunteers, donors if they have any connections to the celebrity you want to engage. If your agency doesn’t need someone specific, that’s easier - pick a tier of fame or a genre (music, acting, sports), brainstorm a shortlist of celebs. From there, do the discreet calls to your network and team to see if anyone can do an intro.
If the why equals only crass PR, that’s not a compelling story to interest a famous person to share or donate their time and talent! They get asked all the time for donations, guest appearances, etc. so if there is no personal relationship with them and your agency or cause, why should they care?
JPP: You make an excellent point Dana. The celeb's time and talent must connect with the organization's mission somehow. Thank you again for taking the time to chat with me! I look forward to hearing more from your Priceless Advice series and staying in touch!