How Social Media Celebrity Campaigns Can Drive Nonprofit Success



Like any nonprofit fundraising or awareness campaign, success is driven not only by the spokesperson’s following but also by their goal alignment.


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Dreaming of Angelina Jolie or Bono endorsing your latest cause? Big celebrities bring big attention to causes – or so conventional thinking goes.

Stars like Emma Watson, Heidi Klum, Kristen Bell and Mario Lopez helped Red Nose Day raise more than $30 million for kids around the world. The Game of Thrones cast partnered with International Rescue Committee (IRC) in the #RealmToTheRescue campaign to support Syrian refugee relief.

While A-list celebrities do bring attention to important causes, most non-profits simply aren’t high profile enough to land a celebrity endorsement. But all is not lost. Research suggests that celebrity endorsements may be overrated. A better bet than celebrity-backed crusades? Partnering with social media stars to harness the power of influencer marketing.

Why Social Media Personalities Beat Out Hollywood Celebrities

Social media stars are part of a new brand of celebrity and online power broker. These influencers rise to fame on platforms like YouTube, Vine, Instagram, and Twitter. Tapping into their following can have a bigger impact than celebrity-backed endorsements.

Why? According to a 2010 study published by AdAge, less than 12 percent of ads using celebrities exceeded a 10 percent lift. Worse, 20 percent of celebrity ads had a negative impact on consumers. Following the basic principles of content marketing, which call for providing value to the audience, is key – especially when a good cause is on the line.

The wow effect of A-list types simply doesn’t do it anymore. “Today’s consumer is more likely to be influenced by someone in their social network than a weak celebrity connection,” AdAge argued in 2011. Five years later, the argument has only strengthened.

Today’s consumers are challenging to impress. We don’t want products – or causes, for that matter – pushed on us by a celebrity. We’re more influenced by our immediate peer network and broader social networks. Make sure to build your social media audience, using the tools of the trade, before blasting out your pitch to donate. And the endorsement of someone within this network matters because the endorsement feels like a personal recommendation, even if we’ve never met the person. We’re part of the same connected network.

Case in point: the hugely popular Humans of New York (HONY) Facebook page. Run by photographer and blogger Brandon Stanton; HONY recently used its following to raise more than $3.8 million for pediatric cancer research and more than $750,000 to support 13 Syrian refugee families.

Social media stars are perceived as more accessible than their traditional counterparts, giving them a vaunted level of credibility with fans and making them especially valuable partners. The result: nonprofits can win big by aligning themselves with online influencers who are already speaking with authority on issues related to their missions. While partnerships like these do require nonprofits to cede some control of their messaging, when done right, these partnerships can pay huge dividends both for fundraising and cause awareness.

3 Successful Social Media Influencer Campaigns and Lessons Learned

1. Gronk Nation Youth Foundation: Selling T-Shirts via Social Media to Defeat Cancer

Okay, so admittedly Rob Gronkowski, a football star who plays for the New England Patriots, is a pretty well-known celebrity athlete. But it is Rob’s skillful use of social media – and the entire Gronkowski family, in fact – that’s earned Gronk Nation Youth Foundation a spot on this list.

Gronk Nation Youth Foundation is a nonprofit organization that partners with youth charities, providing financial support and raising awareness about the benefits of these charities. Rob and his athletic brothers use their social media accounts to bring attention to Gronk Nation fundraisers, like a recent Gronk Nation T-shirt fundraiser co-hosted by social commerce platform ViralStyle.

The campaign sold more than 2500 shirts, with some help from Instagram engagement, to support the F**k Cancer Foundation.

Lesson learned: Selling merchandise to raise money for a good cause? In addition to partnering with a social media celebrity, use a platform to streamline product sales and create a sense of urgency to buy now, like ViralStyle’s campaign countdown timer.

2. Tyler Oakley: YouTube Star Raises More Than $500,000

Never heard of YouTube celebrity Tyler Oakley? While his name may not mean much in our offline world, on YouTube, he’s a huge power broker. Oakley has more than 8.1 million YouTube subscribers who love his goofy, hilarious videos.

Last year, to mark his 25th birthday, Oakley asked his followers to make a small donation to the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ suicide-prevention hotline.

Part of the campaign, Tyler raised $525,704, far exceeding his goal to raise $150,000.

Lesson learned: Social media can foster a sense of intimacy and connection between two people, even if they’ve never met in real life. Savvy social media stars and nonprofits can leverage this connection for a good cause. A smaller, more connected group is more likely to respond to a recommendation from one of its members.

3. Jessica Shyba: “Mommy Blogger” Turns Instagram Account Into Animal Shelter Fundraiser

Back in 2013, Jessica Shyba was a mommy blogger with a modest following who posted Instagram photos of her toddler napping with the family’s newly adopted puppy.

Jessica’s casual references to the Santa Cruz SPCA led to a huge (and unexpected) spike in followers and donations: 1,000 new followers and $10,000 in donations in just one month. Her toddler and the adopted dog even inspired their hashtag campaign, #TheoandBeau.

Shyba later partnered with the shelter to create a special Valentine’s Day card featuring her now-famous toddler and adopted dog, which brought in $2,000 to the shelter. She’s now published a book of photos, with proceeds benefiting the shelter.

Lesson learned: Sometimes, the best opportunities in life are truly serendipitous! While Shyba and the Santa Cruz SPCA didn’t set out to run a social media fundraising campaign together, both were wise enough to recognize a great opportunity when #TheoandBeau went viral. Social media momentum won’t last forever, so be ready to take advantage when it comes your way!

As much as today’s young adults care about causes, they can see right through inauthentic posturing, so make sure the “internet famous” people you align yourself with are good matches to your cause.

Like any nonprofit fundraising or awareness campaign, success is driven not only by the spokesperson’s following but also by their goal alignment. These campaigns are successful because the star power behind them truly believed in and supported their partner causes.

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