FEATURE: All for a good cause

Research shows charities have been slow to embrace digital media. Suzy Bashford looks at a few exceptions.

Call a charity press office and ask what it is doing in the digital media space and the standard response will often be ‘We're looking into it' or ‘We're going to be doing something very soon'.

No surprise, then, that when digital marketing agency iConcertina researched the top 110 charity websites to evaluate their digital strategies, it concluded that most ‘had a lot of work to do'. According to its report, the vast majority were using their websites as online brochures, with no clear marketing strategy and were missing the opportunity to strike up a dialogue with potential donors and fundraisers.

One charity that bucks this trend is World Vision, which launched its Alter­native Gift Catalogue in virtual-world Second Life in December. PR manager Fiona Cole says: ‘The rise of social ­media online is exceptionally important. For NGOs not to have an online strategy and presence is shortsighted as they won't be maximising their presence to their audiences.'

Sluggish response to new media
So why is it taking charities so long to get a grip on new media? As usual with new initiatives, most charities cite cost and lack of resources as the main reasons for delay. But one PRO, who ­declined to be named, claimed that having old, out-of-touch trustees was partly to blame.

Another source said that hiring ­individuals with web expertise was ‘difficult and expensive', while a third ­argued that inevitably it takes large charities a long time to respond to new technology and trends.

Dean Russell, client services director at iConcertina, who led the research, believes charities are missing out because of their slow response. ‘If you look at where the web is moving, it's much more to do with social interaction and social networking,' he says. ‘It's not just about telling people what you're doing, but asking them what they think about what you're doing.'

Russell argues that PROs are well placed to take ownership of a charity's online dialogue, but that they have been slow to realise this opportunity.

Tools such as blogs provide perfect outlets to highlight fresh, daily case studies but Russell found that the ­majority of sites were full of outdated examples of a charity's work.

Former charity PRO Simon Collister, now an account manager at Green Communications, argues that charities' futures are actually at risk unless they get involved in social networking online. The danger for member-based charities is that social networking provides a way to circumvent annual membership fees.

The upside, Collister argues, is that charities are ideally placed - much more so than commercial businesses - to benefit from social networks. However, they need to move fast.

‘Social networking is all about people producing content to gain recognition and feel good about themselves. Those are also the principles that charities have traditionally relied on to achieve their aims. Now they can build up information without the usual cost involved because people are willing to contribute for free.'

Since iConcertina carried out its research last year there have been some developments in the third sector that show more charities are investing in the web. One of the most innovative examples is Action Aid's myactionaid.org.uk, launched in February (see below) .

Inspired by social networking site MySpace, it enables campaigners to personalise their pages and communicate easily with others about their fundraising activities.

Save the Children is also breaking new ground. Along with World Vision, it was one of the first UK charities to have a presence on avatar-filled virtual world Second Life (see below).

Another example of a charity creating a networking community of like-minded people around its cause is Dogs Trust site Doggysnaps. Set up last September at a cost of £50,000, it has so far attracted more 13,000 registered dog lovers - an average of 5,000 visitors a day. Members can share pictures, chat online and create their own ‘kennel space' to tell their stories.

Jacqui Darlow, digital manager at Dogs Trust, oversees the site. She moved from the PR department to the role 18 months ago. She explains that digital agency Interesource first suggested that the charity get involved in social media more than two years ago but, at that time, ‘people here weren't ready for it'.

The Doggysnaps site has enabled the charity to reach potential donors overseas, and it has gained a fresh channel for the organisation to promote its key messages. Furthermore, the lack of Dogs Trust branding has served to ­attract new prospects: at launch the site was populated by around 60 per cent Dogs Trust members, but now that figure is only eight per cent.

‘At the moment, the website gives our supporters a new, fun way of communicating with us and each other, rather than the usual blatant, in-your-face fundraising. It helps build trust around the charity because it's not just us preaching about dog care all the time,' says Darlow.

Generating revenue
However, while the site has managed to create a vibrant community, the long-term objective is to generate revenue from members. Registration is free and, while there is an option to donate online, few members have done so.

‘Our main objective was to sign up 10,000 users by last Christmas, but we want to raise money out of this. We are reaching new people, but they don't come to the site for that [to spend money], so we're trying more surreptitious ways,' says Darlow.

The charity will shortly be setting up a gift shop online. There are also plans to sell more advertising on the site and run more themed campaigns. ‘For example, we might put an appeal on the site saying, "This dog needs an operation, can you help us out?"' says Darlow.

Asking people to support a campaign is where Oxfam has seen success online. It ran a campaign against Starbucks, which was blocking trademark applications by coffee-growers in Ethiopia, by creating a page on MySpace (myspace.com/starbucksaction).

The site urged social networkers to help Ethiopian farmers by demanding that Starbucks give them legal ownership of the names of their coffee. Clicking on a link on the site, sent an automated fax to Starbucks CEO Jim Donald.

More than 90,000 people did so and 4,500 added Oxfam as a ‘friend' to their own site to promote the campaign. By the end of February, Starbucks had agreed to stop blocking applications.

‘It's not difficult to get involved with digital media, but you've got to get the tone right when approaching these social networking sites,' says Oxfam press officer Stuart Fowkes. ‘If you approach them from a very worthy point of view, asking them to throw money at you because you're a big charity, then the response rate won't be terrific.

‘Whereas if you say, "we need your help, we want you to get involved", then you're using the site for what it was intended: networking and talking to each other on the same level.' He adds that Oxfam chose to use MySpace as the conduit rather than create its own network, like Action Aid, because the site already attracts large audiences. This makes the campaign less labour intensive and costly for the charity.

Oxfam has also found MySpace is a valuable way to reach audiences that are difficult to reach via traditional media. For example, to support its month-long music festival in October, Oxjam, it created www.myspace.com/oxjam.

‘This event is about the man on the street putting on a music event, so the most important thing was to get small communities of bands and independent musicians in towns all over the country talking to each other about Oxjam,' says Fowkes.

‘It's very hard to do that through straightforward media and press; this audience does not tend to read local newspapers and they do not all read NME, either. Through MySpace, Oxfam was able to reach influential musicians who spread the word and bounced ideas for events off one another resulting in the creation of 50 Oxjam sites set up by supporters running their own fundraising event.'

Eva Applebaum,

Amnesty International has also used digital media to drum up support for its campaigns. Eva Applebaum (l), director of internet and ecommunications talks about ‘turning social networkers into social activists'. She says: ‘We have been reaching a global audience who would otherwise be difficult to speak to, particularly in countries where we don't have a local presence. In the past, we would just post a synopsis of a report on our website. Now we are trying to engage more with our constituents.'

One way the charity is achieving this is via blogs written by senior staff out in the field. While many PROs are cautious about blogging, Applebaum argues it is much more personal and engaging than a press release or a report.

Another way the web is helping promote a cause is Amnesty's campaign to close Guantanamo Bay. People wanting support the campaign create their own animated character, which joins a flotilla setting sail for Cuba (amnesty.textdriven.com/guantanamo/home).

Amnesty also runs irrespressible.info where visitors are urged to show their support for the right to free speech by publishing fragments of censored material on their own sites. The charity believes this ‘anti-authority action' resonates particularly well with online audiences, which are typically more rebellious and passionate about their right to express themselves.

Beware of misconceptions
However, while Applebaum is enthusiastic about digital communication, she believes its cost effectiveness and image as a quick and easy way to reach a mass audience is overstated. ‘Sometimes there's a misconception that when you do something online there is no cost. That is dangerous; there is always a cost to doing things effectively and using professionals,' she says.

Because of this misconception, ­Applebaum believes that some charities pay far less attention to online campaigns than to those in other media. ‘I've seen instances when organisations are very particular about how a print campaign is designed but when it comes to the web, it doesn't seem to matter as much,' she says.

Jane Smith, managing director of Smith & Smith PR also accuses charities of lacking focus. ‘Not enough energy goes into making sure that online campaigns are right for certain charities' target demographics,' Smith warns.

‘I've heard about an older people's organisation going down the online route, which is a questionable strategy. It's much more likely to be an opportunity for youth charities,' she adds.

Nevertheless, as broadband access soars and the internet becomes more ingratiated in everyday lives, there's little doubt digital communications will become increasingly important.

Oxfam plans to run more of its campaigns online. Fowkes says: ‘It will be doing more to put news stories and press releases online because, increasingly, ‘that's where people are going for information'.

‘The longer charities take to get ­involved in new media, the longer it is going to take them to get their heads around it.'

ACTION AID - The Social Networking Charity

Development charity ActionAid soft-launched website MyActionAid.org.uk in February. It took eight months of planning and is based loosely on social networking site MySpace.

ActionAid marketing officer Andy Johns believes charities should be learning from the way sites such as MySpace and Youtube have become such influential communication channels for young people.

‘Charities need to embrace this kind of technology and speak to the modern world,’ says Johns. ‘MySpace and YouTube have revolutionised the way people talk to each other. It would be naïve to ignore them.’

The idea behind the site is to give fundraisers a place where they can publicise their event, make donations and share their experiences by blogging and uploading pictures. By bringing like-minded people together, the charity hopes to boost donations and participants for fundraising activities. Although there have been some obvious PR benefits (the story has been picked up in the national press), Johns says that PR is not a key objective of the project.

Just as content can spread like wildfire on sites like YouTube, ActionAid is hoping its supporters will spread the word about their campaigns in the same way.

‘Our charity is different to others in that we allow fundraisers to visit our projects,’ Johns continues. ‘So, if they trekked the Inca trail, then they could visit a programme in Peru and see our work first hand. It’s no longer about us saying “we do this work”, it’s about people saying why they support us and why they believe we should fight poverty. It’s a debate.’

The fact that supporters are personalising their own sites also gives ActionAid the opportunity to feed them personalised, relevant, up-to-date information.

Within two weeks of launching, 50 people had signed up to the community. According to Johns, ActionAid is expecting ‘a good take up once we start marketing actively to supporters’.

However, the initial two weeks have been crucial in determining glitches and understanding what kind of site the charity’s supporters want. The most valuable feedback has been requests to make the tools as easy to use and accessible as possible. ActionAid’s typical fundraiser is ABC1 females aged 35-plus, but the charity is also hoping the site will bolster youth support.

Johns also claims the website is saving the charity money. Instead of outsourcing the online fundraising services to justgiving.com (as it has done in the past), now it is handled internally.

As well as cutting out the middle-man, this gives the charity further opportunities to communicate directly with its donorbase.

Savvy Online Fundraising

In the last two years, a number of websites have launched which enable charities to raise money with no financial cost to themselves or their supporters. Two of the key players, ClickNow and Everyclick use search-based models.

Ordinarily, search engines such as Google make money by charging advertisers a commission each time a user clicks a link on the search results page. However, if charity supporters carry out their searches via ClickNow or Everyclick, 50 per cent of the commission goes to their chosen charity. The sites then pocket the remaining 50 per cent.

In both cases, search results are supplied by Ask and are displayed in a similar way to Google’s results.

ClickNow was launched in June 2005, has 200 partner charities and estimates it has raised £100,000 to date, but chief executive Charles Lovibond admits that educating charities about this new way of fundraising has taken time.

Everyclick also launched in June 2005. It has 47,500 registered users and has raised more than £150,000 for charity.

The model used by rival Easyfundraising works differently. It has signed up 350 retailers to its shopping portal. When charity supporters want to make a purchase from one of these retailers, they go to easyfundraising.org.uk and click on the retailer’s link. In return, the shop donates up to 15 per cent of the value of the purchase to the consumer’s chosen cause.

SAVE THE CHILDREN - The Second Life Charity

Save the Children was one of the first UK charities to use virtual world Second Life to raise funds and awareness.

Second Life is a 3D animated world owned and built by a worldwide population of at least 4 million users. Players access Second Life by downloading its software onto their computers.

Because the world is created by its users for its users, players are extremely protective of any involvement from ‘real life’ organisations. For this reason, Save the Children worked closely with Linden Labs, Second Life’s creators.

The charity runs a ‘Wish List’ programme where supporters can donate money to buy a gift to help poverty-stricken children around the world. The idea to join Second Life came from the charity’s PR department after the Wish List sold out of real-life yaks.

Second Life: WorldVision
launched its Alternative
Gift Catalogue village virtually

The charity ‘built’ a ‘Yak Shack’ in Second Life (l) where players can buy a virtual yak for their avatar, which they can ride, milk and customise. It commissioned a Second Lifer to build the shack.

Exploiting social networkers’ love of personalising their online appearance, Save the Children ran a beauty contest where users could show off their customised yak in return for the chance to be interviewed for Second Life magazine.

‘It’s an area we’ve never dipped our toe into before, so we did this to get access to a new supporter,’ says Rosie Jordan, head of PR at Save the Children.


'Our agency Ogilvy thought it would be a great fundraising mechanism and great for our profile. The media coverage we’ve got from it has definitely paid for the campaign itself,’ says Jordan. When PRWeek spoke to Save the Children it had raised £1,000 through selling yaks in Second Life and had received widespread UK and international coverage in national, trade and online media.

Other charities that have ventured into Second Life:

- American Cancer Society ran a walkathon in the virtual world raising more than $40,000.

- Alzheimer Society organised a photo exhibition called ‘Remember Us’.

- WorldVision launched its Alternative Gift Catalogue virtually.

- Boomer Esiason Foundation for Cystic Fibrosis set up a virtual university to provide residents with more information on the disease and give real-life sufferers a place to meet up.

- Camp Darfur awareness campaign set up a refugee camp which avatars can walk through to witness the victims of torture and genocide.

- A charity that helps children from broken homes, Mensajeros de la Paz, created an avatar which walks around the world with a sign that reads ‘help a child have a second opportunity in his first life’.


To hear more on Jacqui Darlow’s strategy, watch the Podcast
Produced in association with


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