The Limits of Celebrity Endorsement in Volunteer Engagement


Editors note: This article was first published this week at

These days, when a trend is at its fever pitch, it’s trendy to say it “jumped the shark.” That’s from the 1977 Happy Days episode where Fonzie water skis over a giant great white. Since then, the scene has become synonymous with absurd developments that signal the beginning of the end. The show may have limped along for years more, but creatively speaking it was all downhill from there.

Ironically, the Happy Days show that aired the following week has become equally influential – at least to those who care about social change. That was the one where The Fonz and Co. sign up for library cards in order to meet more girls. When the caper works like a charm, Fonzie exclaims: “Libraries are cool!

To this day, Henry Winkler – the actor who played Fonzie – speaks proudly about the impact of his words on viewers. As he told an audience in 2002, when the show aired, “Library cards issued after that one liner went up 500 percent in the U.S. Who knew!”

Over time, Fonzie-at-the-library became a trope for marketers and fundraisers about the potential of celebrity campaigns to influence consumers to act in the public interest.

There was just one problem: There was no Fonzie Effect – at least not on the scale that everyone assumes. Not only has the American Library Association not been able to find any references to a surge in library cards, but there wasn’t even a national system in place to measure card registrations at the time.

Volunteering in the Spotlight

The Fonzie Effect was in full force in October as the Entertainment Industry Foundation prepared for its iParticipate campaign. The historic promotion, which featured a week-long series of PSAs and product placement for volunteering across all the major networks, featured dozens of popular stars talking about volunteering in and out of their shows.

Predictably, as the week began, experts lined up to talk about the impact it would make. While a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication invoked the Fonz, an executive at ABC went even farther: “Give a person a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Show a person fishing on TV, and you will have people fishing all over the country.”

Historic Investment, Unprecedented Promotion

As a society, we are spending more time, energy and money persuading people to volunteer than ever. Taking a cue from the promotional efforts of a celebrity President and renewed funding from the Serve America Act, enormous resources are now being invested on celebrity campaigns to get more Americans volunteering.

From sports leagues to corporate America to the White House itself, many of the biggest powerhouses in the nation are lining up behind celebrities to promote volunteering.

The good news, then, is that there is plenty being spent to support a vibrant, strong service sector. The question is whether it’s working. And here we actually have a pretty clear picture of things.

Measuring Impact

Unlike in 1977, a big part of volunteer engagement now takes place on the Web, which means we can track some of the most critical points of a person’s journey from consumer to volunteer prospect to involved volunteer.

We know why people respond to certain cause-based messages, what kinds of opportunities they’re looking for, and what their expectations are about getting involved with a nonprofit. Unfortunately, we also know how often they drop out before making a commitment.

What the data tells us is that millions of interested people are going online to get involved. And yet national volunteer rates are essentially flat. Furthermore, despite the PR, it’s hard to find any campaign that has successfully persuaded, cajoled, or otherwise convinced Americans to volunteer who weren’t already willing to get involved. While some have produced spikes of interest, most of these have not been sustained.

All this suggests that celebrity and buzz alone won’t do the trick. Without a framework that can support and sustain best practices in volunteer recruitment and engagement, the interest bubble generated by celebrity always pops.

So What Does Work?

Our experience points to a number of best practices, and what they all have in common is that they put the needs and abilities of organizations front and center.

There are too many to list here, but for strategists who are considering campaigns with a volunteer component, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Retention, not recruitment, should be the goal. Hordes of new volunteer prospects won’t help if no one returns for a second or third volunteer experience. What do organizations need in order to keep volunteers coming back? How can your campaign help provide it?
  • It’s nearly impossible to convince someone to volunteer who doesn’t already want to. Despite hundreds of partner Web sites in our network, two-thirds of the traffic to still comes from search engines like Google and Yahoo! The easiest person to inspire is someone who is looking to be inspired.
  • People volunteer for causes they already care about. A celebrity volunteering to save the whales in Florida has almost no significance to me if I’m in Arizona. On the other hand, if I love whales, live in Florida, and Jennifer Garner asks me to join her beach clean up on Saturday morning, I’ll be there. Target your audience by cause, and with a direct request if you can.
  • Volunteers need volunteer coordinators. From orientation and training to recognition and reward, it takes real effort to effectively involve volunteers. An avalanche of volunteers can be as harmful to an organization as no volunteers.
  • Save the soft sell. Too often, volunteering is promoted merely as a way to “get involved.” That’s still important, but today’s volunteers also want to know what impact they’ll make and what takeaways they might have afterward for their resume or portfolio. A campaign that can deliver this message with clarity and authenticity is one that will resonate.
  • Reporting matters. Campaigns don’t always take off immediately; sometimes they need some tweaks. If you design your campaign with reporting and tracking capabilities, you can begin to know what adjustments to make. Foundations and business leaders who wouldn’t dream of leaving metrics out of their core operations often overlook it when it comes to volunteer engagement.

In the end, we need to spend less time, money and celebrity trying to get people to be passionate enough to volunteer. Increasing volunteering is not just a byproduct of caring, but also of having opportunities to get involved and an independent sector that is ready to welcome and nurture them. If you know what channel this program is on, let me know.