News & Views

Challenging Charities


‘Sometimes giving money creates problems,’ said musician Damon Albarn recently, reflecting on Band Aid 30. The former Blur frontman certainly hasn’t been a lone voice in questioning whether a concept cobbled together 30 years ago to raise funds for Ethiopia’s starving is an appropriate way to help combat Ebola in Africa in 2014.

Albarn’s comment taps into a growing inclination on the part of charities to take a much more subtle approach to raising both funds and awareness. Instead of shouting through megaphones while rattling tins, challenging preconceptions and inviting other kinds of donations are becoming more commonplace.

Take the recent Father Bob Foundation competition from Australia where the top prize is Happiness Guaranteed: it’s a week spent not in the sun, but a soup kitchen. And Father Bob is committed to your fulfilment: if your happiness levels don’t rise after a week of volunteering, you’re welcome to stay on until they do. By reframing volunteering as an aspirational activity, Father Bob makes a point about affluent Australians looking for happiness in all the wrong places. Oh, and to enter this competition (where, incidentally, runners up prizes are a stay in a swanky boutique hotel and a flat screen TV) you need to donate to the charity. I admire that strategic thinking: even if you don’t donate, win the competition or even enter it, Father Bob has challenged societal perceptions about what constitutes ‘happiness’. That might just prompt some people into donating that most precious commodity of all: time.

Would you donate time? Run a marathon? OK, then a 10k walk? How about giving up your iPhone? Or your place in the queue to get a brand new iPhone? In September, when Apple unveiled the iPhone 6, volunteers from homeless charity Depaul UK joined the queue outside Apple’s flagship Regent Street store and invited people to bid for its spot in the line on eBay. It was sold to the highest bidder – £570 ($933) – with proceeds raised going towards helping get young people off the streets. Over three days, visibility for the charity went up 5700% and visits to rose by 300%. While gadget-obsessed millennials donned their sleeping bags and took up residency outside the Apple store, Depaul reminded them that their peers who wind up sleeping up on the streets might not be there out of choice. The campaign created almost £4m ($7m) in earned media, according to Publicis London which came up with the idea. That coverage, as opposed to the cash raised on eBay, is the key here. It raises awareness of the plight of the people Depaul UK helps by means of a powerful juxtaposition. That, in turn, could play a huge part in driving future donations.

People give different things in different ways. In a fantastic Citizen Science initiative, Cancer Research UK wanted people to donate their gaming skills to help crack genetic data analysis. The Mexican charity Casa de la Amistad, which helps kids who’ve lost their hair due to cancer treatment, put on a festival for heavy metal fans where the price of entry was a shaved head. Why? Because the charity wanted to create human hair wigs at least 25cm long to give to the kids. Enter metalheads. What a clever idea from Ogilvy & Mather Mexico in Mexico City. Alternatively, this Halloween, you could shame a friend who bought a sexy Ebola nurse outfit into purchasing a real Hazmat outfit for Doctors of The World, a charity fighting the epidemic. Big tip of the witch’s hat to Publicis Kaplan Thaler in New York for that smart piece of newsjacking.

Lamentably, when Christmas is over, Band Aid 30 will be as forgotten as a corny cracker joke because there’s no strategy beyond selling the track. Why not invest in an idea that has more longevity? Press Play to Give is a new initiative from UNICEF that’s part of a wider fundraising platform, called Rights for Rights. Abba, for instance, has given up the rights to royalties from its track Chiquita and the hope is that more artists will follow suit. That’s a sustainable model where the artists are in control which benefits UNICEF every time a song is played. How much more harmonious for Band Aid 30 to have had a similarly long-term concept with everyone on the same page. Instead the project has turned into a celebrity slanging match. Don’t they know it’s Christmas?