bbcon 2014: RJ Mitte and the Importance of Celebrity Ambassadors Living the Cause
Many nonprofit organizations use celebrities to help advocate and even fundraise for their causes. However, just because a nonprofit can get a celebrity face doesn't necessarily mean it should. Really, it's all about fit.
Well, anyone would be hard-pressed to find a better fit between an organization and a celebrity than the tie between actor RJ Mitte, most known for his portrayal of Walter "Flynn" White Jr. on AMC's hit series "Breaking Bad," and the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
Mitte, who was the keynote speaker yesterday at bbcon, Blackbaud's annual conference, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at just 3 years old. Mitte's family sought help at Shriners Hospitals for him from ages 3 to 12, and he's never forgotten the organization and all it allowed him to accomplish. Now, Mitte is using his fame to give back to Shriners, working as a Shriners Hospitals ambassador.
Yesterday afternoon, Mitte was kind enough to answer questions for FundRaising Success in an interview with Blackbaud's Nicole McGougan.
FundRaising Success/Nicole McGougan: How much of a difference does having a celebrity such as yourself championing an organization and a cause, particularly when you have been so personally touched by the Shrines Hospitals for Children?
RJ Mitte: What it comes down to is when you have someone like me who went to Shriners from the age of 3 to 12, and I still go back and see them and am able to work with them, you have that connection. It's important to have — not always a celebrity, sometimes it's not a fit — but it's important to have the right fit. You have these organizations who go and they look at a celebrity and they're like, "Oh, perfect! We like them! We want that celebrity!" But thing about it is when he has no emotional ties to the organization, that's when you're just putting a face on it, and people see that.
In my position, I was lucky enough that I have the impact with Shriners, but sometimes celebrity isn't the way to go. When you have amazing people in this world making a difference, you can go find someone who loves your charity, who loves your foundation and really will fight and give their life for it, and that's what you want. You want someone who puts their whole self into what they believe in and what their cause is.
What's driving my career for me is creating things that are enjoyable, being able to work with these amazing organizations and Blackbaud. Everyone here, everyone at this conference has someone that they care about, or themselves, who has challenges and disabilities, and that's why they got involved. They're trying to make the world better for their families. That's what I like, and that's what I like to show. What am I willing to do for my family? I'm willing to do what's necessary and go to the ends of the earth to do that.
I'm lucky enough that when it comes down to celebrity, I was on a very successful show. Most people don't have this opportunity, and most people in my position never get this opportunity. The odds of me being here are slim to none. I shouldn't be here. But I am, and I'm working and I'm continuing to work and continuing to grow, and I have an opportunity to change this world for the better. I'm able to talk to kids and work with kids, and I try to make an impact in people's lives.
I'm just one person. I cannot save the world. I can barely save myself half the time. But what I can do is hope to set [an example] and what people see of me and what people see of themselves, because setting the example to me is one of the most important things you can do. Setting an example doesn't just show people what they can do, but it shows people who you can become and who you are.
FS/NM: When did you decide to share your story of how Shriners helped you personally? In relation to that, how powerful and important is sharing the stories of the children and families directly affected by Shriners?
RJM: I've always shared my story about Shriners. I'm not hiding that. Shriners was a very big part of my life, and it's continuing to be a part of my life. I think when I started sharing the story and I got the opportunity to start acting and start working and then that turned into a career, a job, it just made it louder. I always showed support to Shriners even as a child because they gave me the abilities that I have today and they are tremendous people that make such a difference.
It's important to tell the kids and families that their kids have the ability to do what i do. They have that ability to be in my position. Their disability does not hold them back. Their disability is knowledge. And yes, it is a struggle. It is a fight, and a lot of times you don't win the fight. But when you're able to take something like a disability — it doesn't have to be a physical condition, it can be a lot of different things — when you have a disability come into your world, facing it and holding it and using it to learn from is key. Everything is a learning experience, and you have to look at it as a learning experience. Everything in this world — be it bullying, be it disability, be it family, be it anything — you have to look at it as a learning experience. You cannot grow if you're not looking at it like that. It will pass right before your eyes before you know it, and it's gone.
You have a lot of people who dwell on self-disappointment, and you have a lot of people who throw negativity and throw hateful things and try and break you down. People try to instil fear in other people. I find the best way to deal with that is three simple words: interject, redirect and redeflect. I find you can apply that to almost anything because you can literally interject into that conversation and put a stop to it there. And you can push it and move it aside and hold it in that position, and while you're figuring it out you can send it back and show them what they're doing and how they're affecting people and how they're affecting this world.
FS/NM: What is your role as the ambassador for the Love to the Rescue campaign? What is your favorite part about helping the organization?
RJM: It's such a pleasure. They started Love to the Rescue, and I was able to be a part of that. And they started another action campaign called Cut the Bull, which we have going on now. We have a pledge online to — I hate to say stop bullying; you can never stop bullying. As much as we call ourselves a civil society, we're not that civilized. When you put people in a situation where their back is against the wall, they will do anything, and "Breaking Bad" shows that. One thing that I love about "Breaking Bad" is how real it is when you have a man that is willing to do anything to provide for his family, and that is a lot of people. It's true in a sense — how far are you willing to go to make a difference? How far will you go to show your family and show your friends that you can make that impact?
Shriners has given me the ability, and we're working together because they gave me so much. Whatever I do from here will never compare to the abilities that they gave to me, so any way I can I'm more than happy to be a part of Shriners.
FS/NM: What would you like the donors, the program workers and the fundraisers for Shriners to know about how much they really do make a difference?
RJM: Shriners makes a difference in the world. I'm living proof of that; I show people that. I'm able to show, not just to Shriners, but so many people are in my position, thousands and thousands of people in this world with disabilities and challenges that they have to face, and I was able to get here. When it comes down to Shriners, working in a hospital, you see it. That's the thing about Shriners. They can see the impact that they're having, not just on the children but on the parents, on the grandparents, they see that. They can see it firsthand.
A lot of times people are sitting at a desk and don't get to see that impact. I recommend going into a Shriners Hospital, going into a St. Jude's, going into any hospital and going to the children's unit and seeing these kids — and not just seeing the kids but the parents that are sitting next to their kid's bedside day in and day out. Mom stays overnight, and then dad shifts in — you see this. That's the good thing about having a children's hospital, you can see the impact. Shriners has that impact. They made an impact on me. I'm living proof of that it works, that they are having an impact on children and their families.
FS/NM: What are your goals for the Love the Rescue campaign moving forward and your plans for championing Shriners Hospitals and the life-saving work it does for children?
RJM: As long as I can continue to work with Shriners Hospitals, I'm more than happy. Whatever they need me for — I'm sure my manager loves when I say that … I love Shriners. I love the organization, the Shriners themselves. It's an amazing brotherhood of people all caring for the well being for children, and that's why the brotherhood is in place. It really makes a difference. We're just very lucky and blessed to be able to be a part of it. It's just an honor.
FS/NM: What can people take away from your story personally and, in addition, the story of Shriners?
RJM: To grow. You can have that same effect on children. You can have that same effect on your own life. It's not just Shriners. It's everyone. And we have the abilities and we have the growth and we have the social media to show this and to continue to grow this, and they do make a difference. … You can really have an impact. You don't always see it, but it's there.