Dear Nonprofiteer, Isn’t Oprah omnipotent?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I’m wondering if you saw the Chicago Tribune story last week about the billboards erected by the organization SmileTrain to “solicit” Oprah Winfrey and what your reaction is. Since I am writing, it’s clear that I think there is a problem here. It’s clearly a clever campaign in that, although it failed to win a donation from Oprah, it has attracted the attention of passers-by and of the media. But at the same time, isn’t it bad fundraising practice and bordering on unethical?

Signed, Taken Aback

Dear Taken,

I’m not sure I see an ethical problem, exactly: if a billboard were addressed to a regular person (“Hey, Kelly Kleiman you stingy bitch, why don’t you give more money to SmileTrain?”), that might be an invasion of privacy; but Oprah is pretty much a public figure, and there’s no particular reason she shouldn’t be importuned by billboards as well as discussed in the tabloids.

What’s wrong with the approach is that it suggests a single wealthy individual is responsible for satisfying the fundraising needs of this agency.  If fundraising consultants in Chicago had a nickel for every time a client said, “Why don’t we ask Oprah?” they’d be able to support all their favorite charities forever.  But of course Oprah–and Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, and Michael Jordan, and Robert Redford, and every other celebrity–has charitable priorities of her own, and any agency that doesn’t happen to fit into them is not going to attract the celebrity’s support simply by virtue of waving a big flag.

Fundraising takes place in concentric circles: your biggest supporters are the people who are closest to you, your Board of Directors and others directly touched by the services you provide.  If someone on the SmileTrain Board of Directors knew Oprah personally and could ask for her support, that’s different; but to pick her name out of the newspaper, just because it’s in the newspaper, as someone who should support the group is just pure laziness masquerading as fundraising planning.

And yes, there may be an argument to be made that laziness in fundraising planning is tantamount to an ethical violation; but do we really need to go there?  The point is: SmileTrain should solicit support based on its mission from people with whom it has or can create some connection.  Buying a billboard to announce that it has no connection with a celebrity, but still feels entitled to her assistance, just makes the agency look desperate.

I’d be interested in hearing you articulate the ethical concerns to which you refer, and in hearing SmileTrain articulate its rationale for the billboard.  Of course, if the first rule of public relations is, “Say what you like about me as long as you spell my name right,” then the agency has already accomplished its purpose, and its rationale–to get its name mentioned–is clear.

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3 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Isn’t Oprah omnipotent?”

  1. Joe Discanso Says:

    The amount of money Smile Train spends on marketing is outrageous. Their fundraising letters are essentially blackmail, saying that they’ll never ask you for money again if you give them something. If you don’t fork over they send letters about once a month with a picture of that poor child on the envelope to shock and disgust people. I have never seen any charity engage in such a despicable marketing campaign.

  2. Christian Says:

    Smile Train is a grade A organization doing grade A work.
    Nothing to doubt there.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      But Mr. Discanso raises an important question about the amount of money the organization spends on fundraising compared to the amount it raises (always a fair question in the nonprofit world), as well as one about the proper use of shock and disgust to attract support for charitable activities.

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