Celebrity donors or spokespersons can make a huge difference for non-profits, foundations, political campaigns, and higher education. High-profile figures bring attention to an organization’s activities, expanding the reach and scope of its message.
But this public attention—as valuable as it is for fundraisers—can also be a curse.
Organizations do not want to associate with controversy when it’s avoidable, especially if it is caused by one of their philanthropic luminaries who naturally attract so much media scrutiny.
Just recently, Bill Cosby stepped down from his position on the Temple University board of trustees. As thankful as the the university likely is for Cosby’s philanthropic support over the years, it takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why the actor—reeling from renewed sexual assault and rape allegations—would distance himself. There is no doubt that the board of trustees and administrators at Temple would prefer to keep their work as far removed from Cosby’s issues as possible.
There is no certain metric to gauge just how bad the fallout of a public relations disaster will be. The effects, however, can be very palpable.
Here is a list of seven celebrity PR imbroglios that have—in some way—adversely affected philanthropic work. Each case is different, but they all reinforce the fact that the behavior of high-profile spokespersons can hinder the efforts (or even tarnish the image) of the non-profit organizations they represent.
In 2012, the world learned that Lance Armstrong used blood doping in order to gain a competitive edge in cycling. In an emotional plea presented on Oprah, Armstrong sought atonement for his actions and apologized for hiding the truth.
Up until these revelations, Armstrong symbolized will-power and munificence. After beating testicular cancer, he went on to compete in international cycling, winning numerous titles along the way. He also founded Livestrong, a hugely influential cancer-support non-profit known for its yellow solidarity bracelets that raised millions of dollars.
Following his admission of guilt, Armstrong lost numerous sponsorships and cut ties with Livestrong. Losing its highly recognizable public face resulted in concrete financial loses for the organization. In one year, the non-profit reported a 22 percent decline in revenues, falling from $44.8 million to $38.1 million.
Who says there’s no such thing as bad press? With the departure of the group’s founder, Livestrong lost its chief fundraising personality, and suffered for it financially.
Sports writers and philanthropy analysts consider Tiger Woods one of the most philanthropic professional athletes ever. His Tiger Woods Foundation awarded $2.9 million in scholarships and education grants in 2010. His youth centers offer after-school educational programs, as well as sports training for kids.
Less salubrious aspects of his life, however, caught media attention in 2009, when celebrity gossip magazines began publishing information on Woods’ extramarital affairs. The claims and public scrutiny culminated in a domestic dispute in which Woods crashed his SUV into a fire hydrant after an altercation with his wife.
After publicly apologizing for his adulterous behavior, Woods went into a self-imposed exile from public golf tournaments—including his own charitable events. He skipped out on the Chevron World Challenge, one of two major charity tournaments that raises money for his foundation. Woods’ absence resulted in over $25,000 refunded to disgruntled attendees, as well as a 20 percent ticket discount for the following year’s event.
Tiger Woods’ celebrity is an essential component of his fundraising power. When potential donors or ticket-buyers were unable to enjoy his presence at an event billed with his name, they didn’t show up. And neither did their money.
The empress of a vast media empire, Paula Deen made a name for herself through her southern charm and butter-heavy, down-home cooking. Fans from across the country became enamored with her cookbooks and television programs, making her one of the most influential celebrity chefs in the United States.
But during questioning under oath, however, not-so-savory stories from her past crept into the media spotlight.
In 2012, a former employee of a Savannah, Georgia restaurant co-owned by Paula Deen filed a discrimination lawsuit, alleging that she was the victim of sexual harassment and the target of racial slurs. When Paula Deen was questioned on the matter the following year, prosecutors asked her about her racial attitudes. She admitted to using racially charged language in the past, and that she also entertained the idea of hiring all black waiters for her brother’s wedding to recreate an antebellum south atmosphere.
The response was swift. The Food Network cancelled her show and Deen hid from the public eye. This posed huge issues for the rollout of her Bag Lady Foundation—a non-profit that helps at-risk women and combats hunger. At the time of Deen’s controversy, the group had raised nearly $100,000. Being fundamentally tied to Deen’s public image, however, the organization was pushed into a period of hibernation after its celebrity figurehead receded from the spotlight.
Deen let the buzz die down, and came back a year later, announcing large investments in her reborn cooking brand. The Bag Lady Foundation finally began its charitable activity, too. The star’s year in hiding, however, delayed the implementation of basic needs funding, and singularly prevented the foundation from pursuing its mission.
In 2003, Martha Stewart was indicted on securities fraud. Stewart sold off 4,000 shares of stock in ImClone Systems, Inc., shortly before the USDA declined to approve a new cancer drug designed by the company. The timing aroused authorities’ suspicion, leading to her trial and eventual conviction. Stewart would spend 5 months in a federal correction facility.
Stewart made her public comeback in 2005, and her company—Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia—once again became profitable the following year.
The fallout from her conviction dissipated, and Stewart returned to her former levels of prestige. Her philanthropic work is widely celebrated. In 2006, she put forth $5 million to open the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, aimed at innovating geriatric practices.
At the time of her legal troubles, however, Stewart’s money became toxic. A long-time donor to the Democratic party, Stewart had given Hillary Clinton $1,000 for her electoral campaign. Following the indictment, Clinton opted to donate Stewart’s donation, giving the money to charity instead of using it for her campaign.
While non-profits, foundations, and campaigns are always looking for funding to further their goals, sometimes the money they receive costs more in public relations than it’s worth in real terms.
Don Imus—famous political shock jock known for his “insult humor”—went too far on his Imus in the Morning program in April, 2007, when he referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as a group of “nappy-headed hos.” The backlash was immediate. The following day, activists and public figures began calling for his cancellation. Sponsors pulled out from the show due to the racist comments. MSNBC disavowed itself of Imus’ simulcast. Before long, the show was dropped by CBS.
Every year, the lewd program would pursue a goal loftier than meting out satire, ridicule, and—in the aforementioned case—racist stereotypes. The show presented an annual telethon raising money for the Imus Ranch, a retreat that allowed cancer-stricken children the chance to live an authentic cowboy life, helping them cultivate self-esteem, live healthily, and commiserate with other kids suffering from similar ailments.
The annual telethon raised millions of dollars for the highly expensive operation via the listenership of Imus’ massively syndicated radio program. The abrupt cessation of the show’s broadcast starved the ranch of it’s bedrock source of annual revenue.
The ranch would survive until 2014, when Imus announced its closing due to personal health issues. His infamous racial slurs, however, caused a massive financial headache for his charitable program.
In September, 2014, a South African court convicted Oscar Pistorius of culpable homicide (the South African equivalent to manslaughter) in the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. A month later, the court sentenced him to 5 years in prison (though he’ll likely only serve a year).
The international sports phenomenon, nicknamed “bladerunner,” sky-rocketed to fame in 2012 as the first amputee athlete to compete in the Olympics. Born with fibular hemimelia (the absence of fibula), Pistorius had both of his legs amputated when he was 11 months old. This physical limitation did not stop him, however, from becoming one of the most widely-recognized sprinters in the world.
In an effort to use his global celebrity in a positive way, Pistorius announced in February 2013 that he was starting a foundation in conjunction with the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow to help develop affordable prosthetic legs for children in Africa. Two days after this announcement, Pistorius fatally shot Reeva Steenkamp in a locked bathroom at his home, claiming that he thought she was an intruder.
Unsurprisingly, his foundation never got off the ground, and the university he was working with lost a high-profile spokesperson for their humanitarian goals.
The former mayor of Toronto is no stranger to controversy. In fact, you could view him as a case study in PR perseverance. He has weathered the fallout from all manner of public faux-pas, ranging from public intoxication to the use of racially charged language. Not to mention being filmed smoking crack cocaine while holding public office.
After being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Ford stepped down as mayor in September 2014, and handed his brother the reins of his reelection campaign. One particular lapse in judgment involving his charitable foundation, however, nearly ousted him from the mayoralty earlier.
In 2012, Ford sent out direct mail fundraising appeals to a number of lobbyists, requesting money for his non-profit program supporting Toronto-area high school football teams. This, of course, was a mayor directly soliciting political lobbyists for money.
City officials were not pleased, and initiated a vote that would have required the mayor to return thousands of dollars received from lobbyists. Rob Ford should have recused himself from the vote, but did not. Political opponents took him to court for breaking Ontario law requiring the disclosure of conflicts of interest, where the judge issued a stayed ruling kicking Ford out of office.
He appealed, and ended up winning the case, allowing him to not only keep his job but also the thousands of dollars he received from lobbyists.
The incident tied up foundation funding in legal limbo for over a year while opposing sides duked it out in court. Certain public positions require due diligence regarding particular matters—in this case asking lobbyists for money. By breaking this rule, Ford threw the receipt of valuable foundation funding into doubt.