It must have seemed like a stroke of brilliance at the time.
A few snaps of Downton Abbey’s Lady Cora with photogenic Sierra Leonean villagers would raise World Vision’s profile, and bring in much-needed donations to fund their aid work worldwide. But then things went decidedly pear-shaped: Downton actress Elizabeth McGovern, on her first trip as a World Vision ambassador, revealed to
an accompanying reporter that she didn’t know the difference between Dakar and Darfur and made it clear that she hadn’t the faintest understanding of World Vision’s work. Suddenly, World Vision looked like an organization that couldn’t be trusted to run its own press office, much less some $800 million in aid programs worldwide.
It’s hard out here for an NGO.
World Vision’s attempt to capitalize on the reflected glow of a fictional aristocrat is understandable. To improve lives, you need money. But to get money, you need donors. And donors are a notoriously fickle bunch. They want to be told that solutions to the problems of poverty, conflict, and disease are easy, so that they can feel assured of making a difference. (Wristbands for everyone!) They want to be brought to tears by a compelling narrative. (You say that a bed net is one of the most cost effective ways to save lives, but does that bed net have a deeply moving backstory of triumph over adversity? No? Could it get one?) Focus too much on raising money, and you might find yourself hard pressed to put it to good use. But let the fund-raising slide, and you won’t be able to do any work at all.
The celebrity ambassador seems, from a distance, to be an ingenious solution to that problem. No need to make the issue itself sexy when your ambassador is! Even a permethrin-treated bednet looks exciting when it’s standing next to Brad Pitt. If your organization has sufficiently prominent product placement in the life of an A-lister, then that becomes the compelling narrative - no agenda-twisting required. Or at least, that’s the theory.
However, A-list stars are as choosy about their charitable affiliations as they are about their scripts. Angelina Jolie showed the world that Goodwill Ambassadorships are for winners, so now everyone from Nicole Kidman to David Beckham wants to promote the vast UN bureaucracy’s causes. George Clooney’s bromance with John Prendergast’s Enough Project is still going strong after all these years, and Ben Affleck, ever the over-achieving auteur, cut out the middle man and started his own NGO, the Eastern Congo Initiative.
The B-list has been pretty well picked over too. Invisible Children scored Kristen Bell back when Veronica Mars was still a TV show. Save the Children has locked down Jennifers of both the Garner and Connolly persuasion. And every British thespian you might vaguely recognize from Richard Curtis movies is an Oxfam Global Ambassador.
At this point, any celebrity who can find Africa on a map has been taken.
All of which means that less prominent organizations are in the uncomfortable position of scraping the bottom of the celebrity barrel - settling for less fame, or less engagement with the cause. And there, to put it mildly, be dragons. PETA may have gotten Naomi Campbell cooing into their camera that she’d “rather be naked than wear fur,” but it wasn’t long before she wasn’t just wearing fur, but actively advertising it. And Elizabeth McGovern thinks she’s in a war zone when her plane lands in Senegal.
A word of advice, if you’re the development officer of a not-for-profit yearning for a celebrity of your very own: resist. Take two ibuprofen and lie down until the feeling passes. Down that path lies danger.
But if the unthinkable happens and you find yourself on a trip to Sierra Leone accompanied by both Elizabeth McGovern AND a Telegraph reporter (just to pick a hypothetical example at random), here is a guide to dealing with the inevitable public relations disaster that will ensue:
1. DON’T assume that your celebrity will research your organization before getting on the plane, much less before accepting the celebrity ambassadorship. A sparkly cross logo and a website that says “We are Christian” is simply not enough to clue in a celebrity that she is dealing with a faith-based organization. Sure, later she may admit “I was stupid not to realise it,” but by the then the damage will already be done. So if your organization deworms orphans for the greater glorification of Mighty Poseidon, maybe mention that on the first phone call.
2. DO prepare a series of amusing anecdotes about senior aid officials’ geographical mix-ups (“and then we realized the resettlement team was in San Juan, not San Jose…”), to distract from your celebrity’s total lack of knowledge of current events, her own itinerary, or maps. And if, in a pinch, you find that your celebrity still can’t distinguish Dakar from Darfur, try whacking her on the nose with a rolled up newspaper and saying “You’re NOT IN DARFUR. Stop asking if we’re going to see Clooney.”
3. DO think creatively to help your celebrity learn her talking points before she is on a plane with a journalist. Your celebrity should not be scrambling for an answer to the question of “what distinguishes [your organization] from its competitors” during an interview. Consider re-printing the labels for her favorite juice cleanse: “Our Low Overhead Maximizes Aid Dollars Cashew Nut Milk”; “200 New Latrines Kale-Cayenne Blend.” As she stares at the bottles, hungrily wondering if it would be cheating to drink them all at once, she won’t be able to help learning the key facts.
4. DO remember that people in Africa have the internet, and read newspapers. If your celebrity says something on the record like “I get the impression that in Africa people have sex far more freely than we do back home,” you’re going to have a hell of a time walking that one back. The video of McGovern’s trip prompted Kenyan political scientist Ken Opalo to wonder if Sierra Leone’s elite, upon watching the video, would want to “put the World Visions of this world out of business.” Ideally, this is not the response that your promotional materials should inspire.
5. DO just roll with it when your celebrity says something like “that clitoris thing is awful.” Because who doesn’t think the clitoris is awful sometimes? It’s ludicrously small for such an important piece of equipment, its sophisticated invisibility shields make it untraceable for most of the male population, and let’s face it, it can be really passive-aggressive. What’s not to hate?
Amanda Taub is a human rights lawyer. Kate Cronin-Furman is a human rights lawyer and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Columbia University. They blog at wrongingrights.com.