In an industry where a shot of a logo on a coffee mug means significant exposure, Heifer’s appearance on “West Wing” was astounding. “It’s unusual to get that much airtime,” White said. Heifer had no control over the message or portrayal, but White said the story “was beyond our wildest expectations.”
“We live in an interdependent world and we should act like it,” he told an audience. “We live in a global community and we should sustain it.”
As the Senate considered the $17 billion foreign aid bill, White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) set up a photo op for the president—involving a goat from Heifer International.
“West Wing” may be fiction, but Heifer International is not. This Little Rock-based nonprofit organization gives food- and income-producing livestock to poor families around the world. Its goal: end world hunger.
Heifer began in 1944 and currently gives 27 kinds of livestock to families in 47 countries. Heifer’s gifts include bees, cows, fish, pigs, water buffalo and goats—like the goat named Ron that President Bartlet and staff surrounded for the picture at the end of the episode, “Guns Not Butter.”
“They explained our mission in a way you could understand three or four times,” said Ray White, Heifer’s communications director, in a phone interview from Little Rock. “It related to the story line they were developing.”
In an industry where a shot of a logo on a coffee mug means significant exposure, Heifer’s appearance on “West Wing” was astounding.
“It’s unusual to get that much airtime,” White said. Heifer had no control over the message or portrayal, but White said the story “was beyond our wildest expectations.”
So, how did Heifer manage to nab the spotlight on one of NBC’s top-rated, Emmy-winning dramas?
“It’s a culmination of years of effective work in the field helping alleviate hunger and poverty around the world in the right way,” said White, an Arkansas native. “It’s also kind of serendipity.”
When White took the job at Heifer two years ago, he began thinking of celebrity endorsements to help raise Heifer’s profile.
A name that came to mind was Brad Whitford, best known for his role as Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman on “West Wing.”
White had worked as deputy features editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 20 years, and he had lived across the street from Whitford’s sister, Debbie Ward. The Wards and Whites were close friends.
White contacted Whitford through the Wards, and White learned that Whitford and his wife, Jane Kaczmarek (who plays the mom on FOX’s “Malcolm in the Middle”), already supported Heifer.
The discovery led to a photo shoot in Greenwich Village, where Whitford and Kaczmarek posed with a water buffalo. During the shoot, White and Whitford brainstormed about how to raise Heifer’s profile even further.
“It was a collective idea,” White said of the plan for a Heifer storyline on “West Wing.” Whitford took the idea to the writers and “it actually happened,” White said.
“It was our wildest fantasy that could happen to help promote Heifer,” White said. “To be watching while that thing was aired the first time was an amazing experience.”
Almost as amazing as Heifer itself.
“All of us here at Heifer—it’s an amazing place,” he said. “Your heart brings you to Heifer. When you understand how effective it is, that is so powerful.”
Heifer mandates that livestock recipients share animal offspring through a program called “Passing on the Gift.” For example, 105 rabbits in China in the 1980s multiplied into hundreds of thousands of offspring, benefiting more than 2,200 families.
“I don’t know of any other organization that turns recipients into donors the way we do,” White said.
And gifts like Whitford’s help get the ball rolling and energize the Heifer team. “It lights us on fire,” White said.
Whitford and Kaczmarek aren’t Heifer’s only celebrity supporters. That roster also includes Walter Cronkite, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, Jimmy Carter, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Susan Sarandon, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, and Ed Asner.
But Wisconsinites Whitford and Kaczmarek, who now live in Los Angeles with their son and daughter, seem to look continually for ways to help people in general and Heifer in particular.
In 2002, Whitford and Kaczmarek created the Clothes Off Our Back auction, for which various TV stars donated their Emmy awards outfits to charity. Whitford donated his Ralph Lauren tuxedo and Kaczmarek her Heidi Kaczenski gown, with their proceeds benefiting Heifer. At least four other stars from “West Wing” participated in the auction.
“They seem like family to me,” White said of Whitford and Kaczmarek. “They have, I think, really good values. They don’t act like stars or celebrities. They’re down to earth.”
But their down-to-earth approach has produced out-of-this-world work for White. Asked if his work load had increased since the episode aired, White joked, “Just a tad.”
“I have probably 500 e-mails I haven’t been able to read. I’ve been overwhelmed with people wanting interviews,” he said. “People have been calling our regional offices and saying, ‘How can I help?’ They want to take direct action.”
It’s more work, but it’s worth it, he said.
“The work is good for the soul and is good for the earth and is good for the people.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director for EthicsDaily.com.