Since I came to UNICEF from the entertainment field, I knew firsthand that there were many celebrities who already had a deep commitment to helping their fellow man. I decided to concentrate not so much on collecting big names as on finding an authentic connection between the celebrity and the cause that he or she was promoting. Usually—not always, but usually—you don't want just someone's name; if at all possible, you want their heartfelt commitment and genuine passion. You want the person to be knowledgeable, so that when he or she talks to the media, the interview has some real content. And you want them to care—really care—about the facts and figures and stories that they share about your issues, so that even to the most cynical reporter, their words ring true.

Given the kinds of in-depth celebrity relationships I hoped to develop, I was looking not just for famous people but for down- to earth individuals who just happened to be celebrities because of their gift of talent and good luck at having us all enjoy what they do. I wanted stars who would be willing to come to events, do media interviews, and also take UNICEF-assisted trips: going into the field, learning about the situation on the ground, and then talking about the nitty-gritty needs of that particular area.

Luckily, I had a great roster of people to start with, including actors Edward James Olmos and James Kiberd and actress Jane Curtin. These three phenomenal people were so kind to me, welcoming my ideas with open arms, telling me freely what they were passionate about, and working so hard for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. I was especially moved by the work of Edward James Olmos, who is known as a spectacular actor with great intensity and who took that same intensity and used it as he traveled throughout Latin America, so he could advocate in the United States for the needs of Latin American women and children. Within months, I was free to call Edward, James, and Jane at home with my requests, and they called me, too, sharing their ideas and telling me how they wanted to help. It was a true partnership that I hoped to extend to other celebrities, making it the model and not the exception for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.

That's why I developed what you might call a niche approach to celebrities while I was at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, seeking ways we could link our organization to something they already cared about and that made sense for them to speak about. Once you let people find their own platform, they become so much more committed. They do their homework, deepen their involvement, and speak so much more passionately. Celebrities with a genuine personal connection to an issue will not only do a much better job of communicating with the public, they will also be excited to take part in innovative approaches to promoting their cause and will go above and beyond to make themselves available for whatever is needed.

For example, I read that the actress Sarah Jessica Parker had trick-or-treated for UNICEF as a child. I immediately hoped we could use this early UNICEF connection to involve her further.

Excerpted from If It Takes a Village, Build One: How I Found Meaning Through a Life of Service and 100+ Ways You Can Too by Malaak Compton-Rock, foreword by Marian Wright Edelman. Copyright © 2010 by Broadway Books. Reprinted by permission of Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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