5 February 2001
Lucy Lawless helps with Starship Charity
Kiwi charities have relied on celebrities to help their causes for decades but how would they fare if networks pulled the plug?
Celebrities have been fronting good causes in New Zealand for decades but that might be about to change after one network has been forced to re-think its policy.
TVNZ is reviewing its position over presenters' involvement in charity work after controversy surrounding an anti-child abuse campaign, the Children First Foundation, spearheaded by news presenter Liz Gunn. While no decisions have yet been made, it's clear many charities and voluntary organisations in New Zealand would suffer if the country's most familiar faces were no longer able to help promote their work.
The Toy Library Federation started here in the early 1980s but it was only last year that a decision to get a TV personality or two on board was made due to increased growth and competition for the dollar. Federation president Irene Mosley says news presenters Simon Dallow and Alison Mau, who have a daughter Paris (three), were the perfect choice. She wrote to them last year, asking if they would consider becoming patrons, and was thrilled to get an enthusiastic response.
Within months, the couple scored a major publicity boost for the cause after attending the opening of the new Wakatipu Toy Library. Newspapers throughout the South Island covered the launch and the couple also appeared in a four-page feature in this magazine. Toy Library is not Government-funded and relies solely on donations for support so profile and visibility have become vital.
'A ban on celebrity involvement would be a major blow because it would be just another door closed on volunteer organisations, who are having a hard enough time as it is,' she says. 'TVs International Year of the Volunteer this year but things has never been more difficult. The involvement of celebrities to an organisation like ours is really valuable now."
Paul Holmes' links with Paralympics New Zealand are well known. His involvement began in 1980, after he met the New Zealand Paralympic team while on assignment in Holland. He was totally inspired by their achievements and formed a partnership which has grown increasingly visible over the years. Paul was invited to be patron in 1996. His enthusiasm for their efforts has spawned documentaries from the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and in Atlanta in 1996 and culminated in comprehensive coverage from Sydney 2000. Some of the proceeds of his CD are donated to the organisation.
'The relationship with Paul just happened and continues to happen,' says Paralympics New Zealand executive director John Hughes. 'He's totally genuine - there's no hidden agenda. We consider ourselves a minority sport and the involvement of a person like Paul adds a lot of weight!
The organisation doesn't take Paul's support for granted, choosing to 'wheel him out for the big ones' alone. 'I'd never go to him for anything that wasn't very important' says John. 'Whenever something comes up that we'd like to promote, the response is often 'let's get Paul to do something on his show but its not about free publicity and that's not what the role of a patron is.'
In some cases, losing a TV personality's involvement would mean more than having to change tack on the publicity front. Judy Bailey has been involved with World Vision for 20 years. She sponsors two children and has traveled to many third World countries to see how the organisation fights against poverty. She fronts advertising campaigns and presents numerous talks and seminars in schools. But Judy is also involved in behind-the-scenes work. She's gained so much knowledge about the organisation and its work that she's now invited to pass critical comment on such things as the charity's strategic planning.
'Losing Judy would have a significant impact on our work,' admits World Vision communications director Graeme Sterne. 'It would take away a significant voice in terms of explaining the issues. A celebrity can build credibility and trust and provide a strong educative role.'
Judy, who is also involved with many other charities and volunteer organisations, has never once hinted that she's had enough of World Vision. 'She is so humble she is more likely to say, 'Have you had enough of me?' Says Graeme.
No one would deny the impact Jonah Lomu has had on public awareness for children with kidney disease. He's been involved with the support group Kidney Kids for the past four years, after a kidney condition almost scuppered his All Black career.
'Its really good to be able to use Jonah's profile to bring awareness about kidney disease because many parents are just not aware that their children could have it,' says founder Elaine Simons. 'Losing Jonah and the public awareness he generates would make our job much harder.'
Although Jonah is extremely busy and can't always attend a function for the cause, he's found other ways he can help. Kidney Kids are now in the process of developing an Internet website which will be cross-referenced to Jonah's own and vice versa.
While its usually difficult to measure the value of celebrity involvement in specific dollar terms, one Kiwi who definitely brings home the bacon for her charitable causes is Lucy Lawless. Starship Foundation communications manager Andrew Young says the star's international fan base makes American and British donations easy to track. They give generously too.
'A ban on celebrity involvement would be a major blow'
Lucy has been involved with the foundation for many years and is this year joining the board of trustees. Losing her input would not just affect the foundation's financial position.
"The more publicity you get, the higher chance there is of more money coming in but celebrities are also valuable to us in terms of lifting the spirits of patients here,' Andrew says. 'Kids, staff and parents get a huge boost when a celebrity comes to visit. Things like that you can't measure in dollar terms.
'The projects and issues we promote are strong in their own right and get support because of that, not necessarily because we've got a high-profile person involved. The cause always has to be the primary focus. But having said that, it would be a shame to lose the ability to call on these people to help.'
Ensuring the cause remains the primary focus, however, is the very reason Barnardos has chosen not to go down the celebrity path. Although TV personalities, including Liz Gunn' have added their voice to various projects over the years, there is no "face' of Barnardos.
"We haven't gone down the personality line because what we are trying to do is focus on the issues and the programs we run,' says Barnardos chief executive Ian Calder.
The partly funded Organisation has been in New Zealand since 1969. 'If you have a high profile person, then the public will remember that person but they might not focus on the issue they are trying to represent. I think we have not achieved a high profile as an agency because we have concentrated more on providing services. But the fact is we are doing the work - we are out there helping children and families and it is through that work that our message gets across."
Ian feels that the biggest shame of the Children First Foundation debacle is that those involved did not choose to put their considerable might behind organisations like Barnardos which are fighting the same battle but which already have the necessary infrastructures 'in place to wage a successful war.
'Instead of pledging $1 million worth of free air time to an organisation with no substance, we would have preferred TVNZ had come to a group like Barnardos saying, 'What more can we do to help?',' says Ian. 'We wonder what will happen to that free air time now?"
Scan and Transcript by Richard K
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