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A mighty reach for the stars

Nonprofit orgs look for celebs to champion cause

As with any nonprofit, one critical barometer for advancing a charitable cause is the appeal of celebrity involvement.

Without bold names drawing media and public attention, nonprofits face an uphill task.

Take the Intl. Myeloma Foundation established in 1990. Sufferers have included include syndicated columnist Ann Landers and Washington insider Martha Mitchell.

But the biggest names that have helped the cause are Robin Leach, chronicler of the rich and famous, and newsman Charles Osgood.

“What started out in my living room in Laurel Canyon with two people now has more than 100,000 members in 113 countries,” says co-founder Susie Novis, whose husband, Brian, later died from the rare and fatal bone marrow cancer known as multiple myeloma.

“Unless somebody famous is diagnosed and wants to let the world know they have the disease, it’s really hard to get them involved.”

The biggest challenge nonprofits face: a seemingly endless stream of charities chasing the same talent.

“There are so many causes that have jumped on the celebrity bandwagon, and who’s to say which cause is more worthy than the next?” asks Rita Tateel, founder and prexy of the Celebrity Source in Los Angeles and an adviser to the Assn. of Celebrity Personal Assistants.

Planning charitable events is a serious business that involves filing a 990 tax form with the IRS at the end of each fiscal year as well as ensuring public trust and support, notes Stephanie Sandler, senior VP of the Giving Back Fund in Culver City, Calif.

Timing also plays a huge role. Tateel, a 20-year vet, says most commitments are secured anywhere from just one or two weeks to about two months ahead of the event to avoid professional conflicts.

“Time is a celebrity’s most valuable commodity,” she says, which is also why nonprofits shouldn’t expect a celeb to stay for an entire event. One way to beat the clock (and close a deal) is to approach a limousine service about donating a ride.

Publicizing the root cause of a dread disease is another solid strategy to pique star interest. Novis describes environmental factors such as pollution as a smoking gun. “There are a number of celebrities interested in the environment, and their understanding of how it can affect not only their day-to-day lives but also the diseases it causes can help win their support for an organization like ours,” she says.

One potential downside for nonprofits that leverage existing celeb connections is that they may dry up or need to be refreshed. “There are only so many times you can go back to the well,” says Tateel, who has helped the Lili Claire Foundation expand its stable of stars.

Founded in 1998 by “Friends” casting director Leslie Litt-Resnick and her husband, Keith, the org is named for their daughter who died from heart complications associated with Williams syndrome. The aim is to help people with neurogenetic birth defects and their families.

“We have so many friends in the business that’s it’s like two degrees of separation,” says Resnick, the group’s executive director and former longtime Hollywood exec. “We’ve had tremendous good fortune in finding many caring entertainment professionals.”

“Friends” star Matthew Perry recently hosted the foundation’s annual fall fund-raising event at the Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles for the sixth time. “He basically came up to my wife and said, ‘Anything you need or anything I can do, you know I’m here for you,'” Resnick says.

Once star power has been secured, the next challenge is to plan a memorable event or promotion. Just ask Scott Pansky, general manager and partner at Allison & Partners, a strategic public relations firm in Santa Monica, Calif.

Working with Brown & Dutch on a partnership between the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Mrs. Fields Cookies and “Days of Our Lives,” he recalls a creative cookie-baking contest. The winner landed a walk-on role on the sudser.

Another campaign was built around a plotline that helped promote the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night Walk. The event featured 220 nationwide fundraising events that were detailed in 8 million brochures distributed at Mrs. Fields Cookies outlets. The grand prize was a tour of the “Days of our Lives” set and a visit with cast members, who participated in eight of the walks and helped increase fund-raising more than 60%. The Light the Night Walk also was featured in one of the show’s episodes.

“The national exposure helped put the walk on the map,” says Pansky, who like Tateel teaches a course at UCLA Extension. No doubt, the intricate three-part synergy helped each get the most mileage from these events.

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