Can the Surge of Celeb Support for Elephants Make a Difference?

Celebrities are going nuts for elephants lately, the latest surge of interest in a cause fueled by social media and high-profile advocates. Could it have a lasting effect? 

Whatever it is that drives the phenomenon of celebrities flocking to animal welfare and wildlife causes, the latest such burst of interest surrounds elephants, specifically Africa’s poaching crisis. The New York Times recently tallied up the many movie stars and other celebs rallying behind this latest it cause, a la rainforests in the '90s and whales before that. 

The list is truly impressive and wide-ranging, including Susan Sarandon’s fundraising efforts, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Edward Norton’s publicity videos, Owen Wilson hosting an art auction and many others. That’s not even to mention the bandwagon of tweets and Instagram posts. 

Protecting elephants is far from a new cause, and we’ve documented donors like Paul Allen, Hansjorg Wyss, Leonardo DiCaprio, and others funding efforts to protect the threatened animals for many years. But how does this recent boost in attention affect the cause? 

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It’s very easy to be cynical about celebrity tweets; research on whether celebrity endorsement drivesgiving is mixed. "Raising awareness" is dirt cheap, after all, unless something tangible follows. But we've repeatedly seen how celebrities and pop culture publicity campaigns can drive philanthropy and participation in a cause, when done right. There are a few areas of potential here.

For one, since demand for ivory as a fashion or decorative accessory drives poaching, style icons (Tommy Hilfiger and Diane von Furstenberg have joined in) could help nudge trends and call out those with peripheral connections. China is the biggest market, but the U.S. is right up there.

Other benefits include raw publicity that can aid online fundraising for NGOs, as digital donations comprise a rising portion of fundraising. Some celebrities open up their own wallets, but the financial boon for nonprofits is more likely derived from charity events that may sound superficial but can legitimately rack up several million. 

Related: How This Movie Star is Taking His Wildlife Philanthropy to the Next Level

The outstanding philanthropic problem with these flareups of interest, however, is that they burn hot and fast.

While the elephant craze hasn’t quite reached viral levels, fleeting support surrounding the Cecil the Lion fiasco and the Ice Bucket Challenge (remember those?) have demonstrated the difficulty for nonprofits to translate a brief spotlight into long-term fortune. 

I mentioned the Save the Whales publicity campaign during the 1970s and 1980s—it seems like a million years ago at this point—a proto-viral charity craze that did result in the desired effect. But note that it took a full 10 years and the organizational drive of a young Greenpeace to get it done.

Related: Cecil the Lion’s Legacy: How Do We Turn Viral Giving Into Lasting Change?

So I think the lesson is, yes, celebrity tweets and videos and events definitely can make a difference, but only if they translate into longer-term institutional support from those high-profile backers and the followers they inspire. It’s trendy now, but people need to stick around for several years. That's the tough part.

Of course, you can extend that lesson to environmental funding in general. Celebrities and charismatic animals can be great fuel for the philanthropic fire, but it can feel like we're playing whack-a-mole. It would be great if more celebs were in it for the long haul, backing the not-so-Hollywood work of long-term reforms.