High profile actors, musicians, athletes, and now reality TV stars — otherwise known as celebrities — are always being asked to show up for this red carpet fundraiser, lend their name to this cause, sign this for auction, donate that. And charities and foundations are always looking to raise more awareness about their cause. Sometimes, they are one and the same, a celebrity with his or her own charity.
Steven Yamin of Los Angeles-based Conscience Entertainment Group has carved a niche in a flooded market. Its mission is to help social causes generate awareness and leverage fundraising solutions through social commerce and communication strategies. Founded in 1999, CEG was established as a full-service communications firm with a purpose: elevate charitable organizations’ social profiles and help generate awareness and financial revenue, it reads on its web site.
Conscience Entertainment Group helped Samaritanmag.com secure interviews with Larry King and Fran Drescher when they had social giving sweepstakes to raise funds for their respective charities, Larry King Cardiac Foundation and Cancer Schmancer. But it does more than that, facilitating social and mobile fundraising, communications strategies, public relations and social media. In various capacities, the company has been involved with everything from a Jill Scott, Maxwell and Charlie Wilson meet ‘n’ greet spa/party package at San Diego Jazz Fest to benefit the Special Olympics Southern California to the LoveLiv fundraiser for a two-year-old girl with a neuromuscular disorder, benefitting A Foundation Building Strength and the opportunity to sit at Susan Sarandon's table at Variety's Power of Women event. There doesn’t always have to be a celebrity name attached, but there does have to be charity.
Steven Yamin talked to Samaritanmag about his entrance into the giving world, how they choose their celebrities and the profile of the social giver.
You founded the company in 1999. What was happening in the ‘giving’ space at that time?
“We were doing all events at that time. A big part of our strategy was getting celebrities to attend events — walk red carpets, golf tournaments, poker tournaments. And that’s what everybody wanted, not really understanding the whole scope of what the potential was. That’s what we continued to do for almost a decade. It wasn’t until really 2009, 2010 when I really started realizing that the way we were utilizing celebrities was really inefficient for the most part. But we did it all primarily through events. Everybody wanted celebrities to attend, especially here in LA. That was the big thing, so that’s what we were putting our energy into.”
Before you started the company, was there any cause-related angle to what you were doing for a living?
“No, not at all. I was actually manufacturing automotive accessories. I sold what we call impulse products and had a great business. I got into Kabbalah in the mid 1990s and the meaning of Kabbalah is to receive for the sake of sharing. They teach you that transformational sharing — which is sharing that really requires effort not just writing a cheque – that’s where your true fulfillment is. So I really started putting it to test and a friend of mine [Carla Woods, who went on to form FDA advocacy reform group Fight To Live] back then asked me to help grant a wish for a 16-year-old boy who was dying of lymphoma through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I got involved and we granted this boy’s wish. All he wanted to do was become a DJ. It was so simple and it was so gratifying and I was so moved by working with him and his family, and seeing the transformation and recognizing how easy it was and at that point in my career, I realized that I wanted to do something more meaningful. And I sold my business and I started Conscience Entertainment.”
At that time, you’re in LA where you’d think everything to do with celebrities has been thought of. What else was there comparatively to what you were doing because it seems initially you were almost an agency – a booking agency?
“What happened is Nick Arquette came to us. He’d lost his mother to cancer and he and his siblings started an organization called Walk With Sally, which is in their mother’s name. It’s a mentoring program for children who have lost or are losing a parent or parents to cancer. It’s a great organization. They had a bunch of celebrities attending their event, and they asked me to volunteer or get involved, which I did. And they asked if I would help them get some public relations and get media coverage for the event. I started calling around to all of the public relations firms here in LA and I was getting quotes of 15, 16, $17,000 on the low end, up to $30,000 and that was to just staff a red carpet with media.
“I realized what charity can afford it? It was crazy the kind of money that traditional public relations firms were charging and it was at that point that I realized that that’s what I wanted to put my energy into and really help charities elevate their voice, which they couldn’t traditionally afford, or couldn’t afford through traditional media or public relations. So that became where our efforts were going. We hired a really good publicist and social media started to become something tangible. We started putting a lot of our energy into social media, and tried to stay ahead of the curve ever since. But we really weren’t doing anything different than anyone else at the time.”
“Yeah, we were definitely a lot cheaper. We ended up doing about 60 percent of our work gratis over the first decade. We really became a face and voice for a lot of charities that couldn’t afford traditional media. And we would work on a pay scale according to their budget, what was affordable.”
Who were your repeat customers that first decade?
“We’ve been doing a lot of work for the Special Olympics of Southern California every year. The American Cancer Society. VH1, we were doing stuff with their Rock Autism initiative, which they’re currently no longer doing. We’ve been very fortunate. Walk With Sally, which was our very first client, we still are working with them. We worked with USC [University of Southern California] and its Norris Cancer Hospital. We’ve been supporting and working with them for the last four or five years.”
Your clientele is mainly in Los Angeles, but you’ve worked with people in New York and Phoenix and are looking at crossing the border. With social media, you could work with anyone across the world.
“Exactly. And that’s what we’re doing now. Rather than keeping it regionalized, we really look at creating new social fundraising tools and creating new social fundraising streams and new donor streams for charities and doing it all online. All of our strategies have changed completely since the inception.”
When you started Conscience Entertainment Group it was a different vision that expanded because of the power of social media marketing. You can reach all those people who weren’t responding to donation requests from flyers and TV commercials and make them feel like they’re getting something in return.
“Absolutely. Traditional fundraising has really changed so much in the last four, five years with social media. Traditional methods with the mailings and the emails have really become ineffective. We consultants speak with hundreds of charities monthly and we’ve seen this across the board with grassroots organizations and national and international organizations; they all were struggling with effective fundraising. And doing events, whether you’re a big celebrity or a grassroots organization, they all had struggles.
“What we started realizing is that there are about 6,500 new charities formed in Los Angeles county every year on average and the landscape of charities and non-profits became so overwhelming. I know 10 years ago, me personally, I might have been invited to one or two charity events per month. Now, I get invited to a dozen every weekend. So it’s a lot of charities competing for the same donor dollars, and when they kept it regionalized it really became challenging.
“So about four, five years ago, we really started to recognize that social media was the solution. But during that time, there was a lot of other people that have recognized that there’s got to be a better way for non-profits to effectively fundraise.
“Every day we watch new technology that’s coming to the surface and coming on the fundraising scene that’s really changing the landscape of how we do business. It’s interesting because it’s a new donor. We call them the social giver; they’re primarily the Millennials [Generation Y]. And there’s a different psychology to them that most non-profits don’t know or understand or for the most part they don’t really care to know. They feel that they’d rather commit their time and energy to cultivating relationship with deep pocket donors.
“What they don’t understand is how big the social fundraising space has become. It was a $3.5 billion industry last year and that’s just in the U.S. and it’s just projected to double. It’s going to be able a $7 billion space this year. And it’s really a matter of taking your presence and having a small voice in one region of the world; it’s about getting other donors and social givers involved to get them to champion your cause. And to get many voices. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about getting strategies to really build an army of people and donors that are going to champion for your cause.”
How is what you’re doing different from someone staging their own event or online auction and auctioning off a guitar lesson or meet ‘n’ greet or other items?
“We’ve spent much of the last three or four years really collecting data and taking the guess work out of it. We have seen repeatedly over and over where a charity will have an item they put up in a live auction at the event and we’ll also encourage them to put it up online as well and the results are pretty significant. We’re seeing 10,000 times up to 20,000 times greater of a raise than they’d do at an auction at an event. What we do particularly is sit down with a charity and ask what their goals are and then we look at their assets. We look first and foremost if they have any celebrity supporters, if they have a cause that’s relatable that’s going to appeal to the masses and then we look at strategies for fundraising.”
So you’re vetting the charities for us, the public? We know you’ve looked at their books to make sure everything’s going where it’s supposed to?
“Absolutely. We use many resources to vet our charities. We really have to understand the social giver and what’s important to them — transparency and the flow through of their money is what’s so important to the social giver. So if a charity is not completely transparent, they’re not going to thrive on the online social fundraising stage. That’s the bottom line. If they’re not transparent where the money’s being spent and if they’re following their mission, the donors aren’t interested. Those are the things that are really important to them, which makes it very important to us. We can’t effectively fundraise for somebody online if they don’t have that transparency in the organization, and a good rating as well.”
Two big clients you recently had: Larry King Cardiac Foundation and Fran Drecsher’s Cancer Schmancer. What did you do for those campaigns?
“Those two we just completed. Larry’s been doing big fundraising events. They rented out the Hilton and I know they spend six figures to produce an event to net not much more. Larry’s a big [LA] Dodgers fan and he goes to pretty much every Dodger home game. So we thought it would be fun and interesting to be able to pair one of his fans to join him at opening day at Dodger Stadium. So we built the sweepstakes campaign around this for the winner and a guest to be flown out to LA and attend the game. The Kings [Larry and wife Shawn] have relationships with hotels and restaurants here in Los Angeles, so we put together a really beautiful package for the winner. Similarly, with Fran Drescher, she’s starring on Broadway right now in Cinderella with Carly Rae Jepsen, and we created an experience for the winner and a guest to be flown to New York City and be put up in a hotel for a few nights and have the horse-drawn carriage and dinners, as well and then go to the show and have some of the best seats of the house, and then have a meet ‘n’ greet and photo opportunities with Fran and Carly Rae after the show. So we look at ways that we can create these experiences, leveraging their existing assets.”
Sometimes people don’t give on the off-chance they’ll win the big prize, but you offer guaranteed gifts for certain donation amounts, so it is crowd funding?
“Yeah absolutely. We incentivize the donors at different entry levels. You know what’s great is we do these packages so they’re inclusive of all travel — hotel and airfare ‘— so we can open it up globally. We noticed that the social giver, as I mentioned who primarily are Millennials, they don’t necessarily have a few thousand dollars laying around to jump on a plane to fly to New York. So we make the entry as little as $10 and then incentivize them; you know, buy five entries or more, the price comes down a little bit, or buy 10 entries or more and they’ll get a signed t-shirt from Larry King. So we offer prizes along the way. The higher the donation the bigger the prize is and the more entries they have to win the sweepstakes.
“For the most part it is similar to crowd funding. Crowd funding for non-profits is not working as well as sweepstakes are. And really it’s just semantics. It’s just a different way that we give away the prizes. But it works very similarly.”
This word ‘celebrity’ — we try to avoid it on Samaritanmag.com because ‘celebrity’ is not an occupation; actor; musician; athlete, chef is — but of course ‘celebrity’ carries a lot of weight with the media, the public, with businesses and, obviously, charity organizations. Some people are further categorized as A-list, B-list, C-list and even D-list celebrities How do you put a value on a person and their talent and their ‘celebrity’ in order to take them on as a client?
“Well one, there has to be that affinity with the donors and that connection. We’ve had our struggles in the past working with celebrities who weren’t on social media, and didn’t have an audience or a following and it became very challenging. We’ve seen celebrities that we didn’t expect to perform that well who were incredibly active on their social media during their campaign, who ended up raising six figures and doing exceedingly well. And we worked with other celebrities that were A-listers, and really weren’t that behind their campaign and weren’t active, that didn’t do well.
“So really besides just their status, it really is their heart. When celebrities can get behind their cause or causes they’re supporting, and they’re actively involved, they’re going to engage their fans. And then their fans engage their friends. And that’s how it happens. Magic happens when their effort is really put into it. We provide a lot of communications services during the campaign, which is so crucial, but ultimately it comes down to the celebrity and their involvement. So if they’re actively involved and their heart’s in it, it’s going to show in the results.”
Conscience Entertainment Group is one component to this; you put these together with partners, right?
“Absolutely. When we bring on a non-profit client and we establish their assets and we can build some experience out of it, then we go vet it out with different sweepstakes or crowd-funding or auction platforms. We’ll talk to our different platform partners and really gauge their interest. A lot will have really good feedback, how we can make it a bigger or better experience. Others may decline it. And we look for the best partner for our charity. The one that’s going to be the most engaged.
“We realize there’s a lot of options out there now and a charity can go to one of a dozen different sweepstakes platforms and they might disappear amongst all the other sweepstakes that are going on. We have really strong relationships with our partners, and when we bring someone to them and they get excited about it, we get commitments from them for preferential treatment. Every bit helps. We need to make sure that we’re going to be in their newsletters; we’re going to be in their social media feeds, and that’s going to contribute to the bottom line, and that’s a crucial and important element for us.”
One last thing. The 16-year-old boy with leukemia you mentioned, is he still alive?
“Well here’s the interesting thing. I don’t know about now, but I think it was 2009 I did an event for a pediatric cancer organization, and we actually reached out to Make-A-Wish and they connected us to Javier, who was alive at the time and in complete remission and he ended up DJing our event for us, which was one of the highlights of my career.”Zapatillas de baloncesto Nik