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10 Oct 2014

Time to focus on charity issues, not hashtags

Posted on October 10, 2014 by

This may sound a little odd, given the millions that have been raised this year, but I think the trend towards consumer-led (and, in particular, celebrity-led) fundraising through social media is a huge danger to charities – especially smaller ones.

Let me explain.

If you think about the big fund-raising efforts championed through social networks in 2014, very few of them originated with the charities themselves. One or two – like #nomakeupselfie – didn’t even start out as fund-raising campaigns.

Of course, that’s fine if the charities are happy simply to bank the funds that subsequently come their way.

My concern is that social media-led campaigns tend to focus on the activity and not the cause they’re allegedly campaigning about. Because that’s how you get mass-participation: keep it easy. We join in the fun, and some of us may even donate, but our understanding of the charity’s aims and objectives is, arguably, no greater at the end of it.

And there’s a growing tendency for them to be more about individuals – and I include celebrities in that – showing off to their friends or fans than actually seeking to benefit a charity. Yes, there’s a donation at the end of it, but it’s more about the act itself. “Doing it for charity” gives us the excuse to take part – or the reason why we succumb to the peer pressure.

Take the Ice Bucket Challenge. We’ve all heard of it, and many have taken part. But how many people who’ve giggled at the Facebook posts or the Instagram videos could tell you about motor neurone disease and the charities that support those with MND? Are we any the wiser about the condition or the research needed?

The latest in that category is #WakeUpCall, started by Jemima Khan and variously described by the media as “the new Ice Bucket Challenge” or “the latest selfie charity craze”. Its charity recipient is UNICEF, for its work with children in Syria, but once the hashtag stops trending will we be any more knowledgeable of the issues facing those kids?

On the flip side, we’re only three weeks away from Movember, and that’s been a hugely successful awareness-raiser of men’s health issues among an audience that hasn’t traditionally been very receptive to such messages.

It’s now in its 12th year, and Movember gains millions of social media mentions. Men’s health charities have benefited by more than £60m since it started but, more importantly, it has positively influenced men’s understanding of some serious health issues. For instance, Prostate Cancer UK has seen a big spike in calls to its helplines as a result of Movember.

Which shows it’s possible for the charities themselves to use social media creatively, to actually ‘own’ a campaign and to influence our understanding of the issues involved. Plan International’s stunt this week is another good example of that. Simple. Powerful.

Or take mental health charity Rethink’s #FindMike campaign, which aimed to reunite Jonny Benjamin with the man who stopped him jumping off Waterloo Bridge. Through Twitter, Facebook, video content and traditional media, they not only helped to reunite the two men, they also gave a huge boost to the charity’s profile. Rethink had more than 5,000 new Facebook likes and more than 2,600 new Twitter followers, and traffic to its website soared by over 500 per cent.

To be fair to the charities, you can’t blame them for latching onto every social media craze that comes along. Macmillan Cancer Support actually admitted the reason it got on the Ice Bucket Challenge bandwagon was that it had “missed out” on #nomakeupselfie earlier in the year.

So if Macmillan and others are benefiting from social media users putting more fun into fundraising, what’s the problem?

Well, firstly, if charitable giving becomes too closely associated with social media then there’s the danger that people stop responding to other forms of communication – door drops, inserts, even buckets in supermarkets. If that happens, it’s the smaller or lower-profile charities that will suffer the most. The ones that can’t get traction on social networks.

Secondly, as we become more wrapped up in the ‘doing’ we become less concerned about the charities’ issues and PR campaigns, and about actually wanting to make a difference. We lose that emotional attachment to the charity, and without that we’ve no reason to continue donating – or caring – once it’s no longer trending on social.

That’s why charities need to grab back the PR agenda. They need to re-establish those emotional links if they want to build long-term relationships with donors. Not everything has to be said in fewer than 140 characters.

It’s time to focus back on the issues, not the hashtags.

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