Positive giving

I’m going to start this post with a disclaimer! I don’t know an awful lot about fundraising, or charitable giving so I’m not offering this post as some sort of expert advice. I am however interested in the potential of social media to share messages or build a narrative, and thought I’d share my personal experience in this blog post, hopefully as a prompt for discussion.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people work to engage strangers with their cause, whatever that might be and I’ve also been observing how charities make use of media (in the broadest sense) to share their messages. This weekend I noticed an article in The Economist focusing on Civic Crowdfunding that explored how online start ups are garnering the support of local citizens to revamp their neighbourhoods. This seems in contrast to an article a couple weeks ago in the New Scientist about slacktivism, sharing new research that suggests people showing support online e.g. through facebook likes or signing online petitions, are less likely to do donate cash to a cause. Obviously the role that social media can play is evolving and there’s lots we don’t yet know.

What we do know though is that I think it’s fair to say that everyone is feeling the pinch at the moment and consequently the job of securing funding is harder than ever. Recent research by the Directory of Social Change shows that even companies with a track record of donating are cutting back. Total cash giving by these 550 companies amounted to £470m, down 9 per cent on the previous year, while the total value of community contributions plummeted by more than a quarter (27 per cent) to £600m” this was in spite of substantial increases in pre-tax profits. This got me thinking about the potential of social media to improve or increase relationships between donors and causes.

Traditionally charities have used a range of tactics to secure buy in from their supporters, more often than not guilt and empathy are high on the agenda, alongside shock value and in more recent years humour and comedy. Last year Sightsavers launched a campaign to coincide with World Sight Day. Fronted by James Corden, directed by the photographer Rankin, and using parody the campaign brilliantly demonstrates the traditional approaches used by charities. You can watch the film here:

This approach was relatively high risk for Sightsavers as using humour was new for them. That said, they were delighted with the results of this campaign and were also able to identify learning for the future about how tweaking their approach slightly could have improved the overall impact; you can read more here. The striking thing about this campaign for me is that it is positive. It uses humour to build rapport with potential supporters, critiques traditional approaches and allows us to engage with a serious issue (preventable blindness) without looking to guilt or shame us into reaching for our wallets.

Contrast this to Macmillan’s latest ad campaign, Not Alone, which you can watch here:

I find this advert distasteful for numerous reasons. Scaring people into action is about the lowest technique available, portraying people with cancer as weak and unable to cope, reinforcing negative stereotypes and misassumptions. For a brilliant discussion about this ad and it’s impact on people living with cancer, see Kate Granger’s blog post here. I don’t want to dwell on this advert or campaign particularly here, but I find it useful to compare and contrast the two approaches. Social media presents opportunity to build positive campaigns and connect with many supporters, yet so often they are just being used to hammer home the same negative messaging that was previously found on our TV screens or in our newspapers.

In my opinion, one of these mentioned campaigns bravely and positively addresses a key issue, the other cynically and negatively addresses an equally important issue, but seemingly with little regard to it’s portrayal of the people who it is intended to support. In the past twelve months I have supported both of these charities financially, however I have also made some life choices that mean I currently have less disposable income and therefore I am having to make choices about who I support and I know which one will receive my continued support.

Having less disposable income, and having more time, has led me to consider how I invest my time and money more carefully. As a result a new approach I have recently taken is to consider how I can support actions that make a difference at a more micro or local level and I’ll share two examples. I am delighted that I have had the opportunity to support the publication of a book for pre-school children explaining sudden death, Is Daddy Coming Back in a Minute? It was the first book I supported via Bloom VC, it’s beautiful and perfect for it’s rather niche target audience. I am now in possession of a signed copy of the book which I have promised to one of our local hospices where I hope it will do more good than sitting on my bookshelf.

I also had the pleasure of watching over breakfast this morning my backers preview of Finding June, a film that explores communication through the eyes of a Deaf woman recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I can’t share the film with you as it is only currently available to the 72 of us who supported it financially (so that it remains pre-release and eligible for film festivals) but you can see the promo video shot to secure funding here:

The film is brilliant. It is expertly shot, has a great underlying positive vibe to it, will raise awareness of breast cancer issues, and will also challenge any viewer to consider their own communication more generally. The film was actually completed a couple weeks ago but I waited until I had a weekend off to watch it. Having funded it though Kickstarter I was able to follow progress through the filming and editing on the blog and regular funder updates. I even could have attended a screening in LA if I was Stateside.

I appreciate that my financially supporting the book and film are not charitable activity. As it happens in both instances I was rewarded, on one occasion with a signed copy of the book, on the other with a pre-release viewing of the film. So yes, neither of these examples are about charitable giving, however, I consider that both are likely to make a significant difference to the lives of many, through their communication and awareness raising, as well as their end products. At the moment when money is tight I’m leaning towards supporting smaller scale, more local or specialised activity, and yes for me being able to support a creative endeavour in the process gives me a buzz too.

I’m not claiming I’m representative of anyone but I wish charities would open their minds a little, if they can’t see a use for crowdsourcing support, then maybe a focus on the positive would be welcome. I for one am through with being scared or guilted into donating. It’s all about the positive from here on.


Since I wrote this post I’ve spent more time looking at examples of crowdfunding and charitable activity and came across the iCancer example where a bunch of university researchers, with the support of a wide range of individuals, are looking to raise financial support to develop a drug for those with NET (neuroendocrine tumour) cancer. You can watch Justyna Leja, whose PhD research developed the virus that needs clinical trials, explaining the project at TEDMEDLive at Imperial College here:


5 comments on “Positive giving”

I hadn’t seen either of these before coming across this post. I don’t find the Macmillan ad as showing people with cancer as weak- but as representing the shock at diagnosis that many would feel.
On the other hand I found the Corden ad a bit gimmicky and too much like an in-joke!
It’s a good job I’m not a fundraiser 🙂

george says:

Thanks for commenting and sharing another perspective Anne Marie, it’s appreciated. I’ve added a link to the iCancer project and a video of the lead researcher, Justyna Leja, from TEDMEDLive at Imperial last month – would be interested in your views on this approach to drug development if you get five. Thanks.

Richard Sved says:

Thanks for sharing these.

I found the James Corden advertisement a little irritating, I think because it appeared to lack sincerity. At which point, if any, was he displaying genuine passion for the cause he was espousing? It seemed to be more about him. I realise this was the subtext of the humour of the advert, but it backfired, at least in my eyes.

The Macmillan cancer advert is far stronger, for me. I don’t think it’s showing people with cancer as weak. Aren’t all the people falling (apart from the first guy in the hospital corridor) representing the shocked reactions of people who love those who’ve just had a diagnosis? Very powerful, I thought.

I’ve worked in fundraising for many years, but I’ve been a charity supporter for even longer, and these reactions to the adverts are from me as a potential donor.

george says:

Thanks so much for joining the conversation Richard. Seems that you and Anne Marie had a similar response to the campaigns, which I briefly discussed with her on twitter at the weekend. I am biased, I know that, I like James Corden and I like the parody approach as something different.

I am also biased because of my experience with cancer and I have a quite visceral response to these people falling. The reality is that Macmillan can not, and do not, catch all of those people. To some extent therefore the advert is a success, it definitely evokes a strong response in me, and here we are talking about it, but that visceral reaction does not make me personally rush for my wallet. Instead it leaves me feeling at best confused, at worst angry, that the situation of facing cancer should be exploited in this way. That said, these are just my biases. The comments on Kate’s blog are far more eloquent than the ones I have just raised here.

Anyhow, thanks again for joining the conversation Richard, really appreciate it. Hoping someone has views on crowdfunding now too 🙂

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