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Lessons for fundraisers after #nomakeupselfie

One of the charity success stories of the year, #nomakeupselfie was a grass roots campaign started by two young women who posted pictures on Facebook of themselves wearing no make up. Their stated aim? To show solidarity with the bravery of women facing cancer.

The trend caught on, and soon almost every woman I follow on Facebook and Twitter had posted their own #nomakeupselfie. But whereas the aim had at first been a gesture of solidarity, soon people were turning the trend into a fundraising campaign. Each #nomakeupselfie post and tweet was sent with a donation to Cancer Research UK. By the time the trend fizzled out, the charity had received over £8 million in donations.

The grass roots campaign was not without its critics, many of whom were women affected by cancer who questioned equating the ‘bravery’ of not wearing make up to their experience. One such criticism came from cancer survivor and radio broadcaster Jenni Murray, who wrote in the Mail Online:

Far be it from me to denigrate an effort which is reported to have raised such a phenomenal sum…But I feel I must ask: why would anyone imagine that posting a picture of yourself looking, as you imagine, your worst, would somehow demonstrate empathy with those of us who’ve been through what it really looks and feels like to have the disease all of us dread?

Murray’s criticism is very valid and shows how #nomakeupselfie could never have come out of a charity’s fundraising department, precisely because it would open that charity up to these real and important criticisms. This campaign had to come from the grass roots, and its success is partly down to individuals’ enthusiasm for a cause they believe in. Because it was devised by individual, and sparked off the wider public’s imagination, Cancer Research UK was (rightly) not held responsible for any criticism the campaign received. Instead, they used the opportunity to put structures in place to make it easier for #nomakeupselfie participants to donate, and share useful information about their work.

As we have seen, #nomakeupselfie had to come from the grassroots. But that doesn’t mean fundraisers can’t take lessons from the campaign, and discover how its success can help us with our own social media campaign strategies.

The campaign tapped into the ever-growing ‘selfie’ trend – taking a photo of yourself using your mobile phone and then sharing it online via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. For the #nomakeupselfie audience, the use of the term ‘selfie’ gave an instantly recognisable call to action, and immediately demonstrated how it was an accessible activity to take part in.

This provides our first lesson: the importance of monitoring social media trends like the ‘selfie’ in order to find a new and innovative angle for our own campaigns. We need to be on the look out to find the new social media trend (not the new platform necessarily, just how people are behaving on existing platforms) and make it work for our fundraising.

Another recent example of an individual’s grass roots campaign hitting the headlines and raising a fantastic amount of money was Stephen Sutton’s fundraising for Teenage Cancer Trust. Sutton, who was diagnosed with cancer when he was 15 and died in May this year, set up a Facebook page detailing his bucket list, which became a springboard to raise money and awareness of the Teenage Cancer Trust. As more and more people responded to his incredibly moving and inspiring story, his fundraising total rose and rose.

Both #nomakeupselfie and Stephen Sutton’s campaign were helped by unprompted celebrity support. From Holly Willoughby posting her #nomakeupselfie to Benedict Cumberbatch posing with a hand-drawn #thumbsupforstephen sign, celebrities can reach a huge audience in an instant and inspire their fans to take action. Of course, there are rules about paying for celebrity Twitter endorsements. But if you can get your celebrity supporters to join in your campaign for free, then it can make a real difference to your fundraising.

The final lesson we can learn from the #nomakeupselfie success story is how by encouraging participants to do something simple and self-sacrificing in addition to making a donation, you can really boost your fundraising.

Every year, millions of people feel inspired to do something that involves a bit of sacrifice in the name of a good cause. Think of all the reasons why ‘challenge’ fundraising events are so popular – people want to do something, to take action, as well as to give money. It helps us feel more engaged with a charity’s cause if we feel we are doing something active in support. Posing for a #nomakeupselfie wasn’t the same as running a marathon or hiking the Great Wall of China, but it did involve taking some kind of action.

Taking the selfie, sharing it and writing about it is more tactile and engaging than simply hitting the donate button on a charity’s website. What’s more, #nomakeupselfie gave participants a chance to feel part of a national movement – a member of a great community of people all working together to achieve something fantastic for charity.

And precisely because it wasn’t hiking the Great Wall of China, millions of women did it. Whilst still tapping into that desire to make a small sacrifice, it was still so easy to do that it only took two minutes.

What we learn from this is that encouraging people to do something easy, involves a bit of sacrifice, and can be shared across a community, can be more galvanising than simply directing people to the ‘donate’ button.

From hash tag to donors – how can your charity engage with grass roots social media campaigns?

Yesterday, my Twitter timeline was filled up with women and men taking part in #WearRedWednesday – an action designed to show solidarity with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign for the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haran. I joined in, wearing a red scarf and sharing news and campaign stories on social media.

Grassroots social media campaigns are becoming increasingly popular and influential – from the role social media played in the Arab Spring to the £8 million worth of donations raised by the #NoMakeUpSelfie initiative. But how can we get an audience to go beyond the hash tag, and turn their engagement with an issue, into engagement with your charity?

Hash tag campaigns are a great way for charities working in specific areas to engage with an audience who cares about their cause. However, nothing disrupts a grass roots campaign than a charity barging in, and telling people that if they really cared, they would head over to the charity’s website and make a donation. We need instead to find a way to create an equal and mutual relationship between campaigners and charities, as together they work towards a shared aim.

The first way to do this is for the charity to engage with the hash tag. By making it clear that they are involved in the cause, and want to show their solidarity with activists, the charity can begin a conversation. They can start sharing their insight into the issue, and talking about why they are campaigning on it.

Once that conversation has begun, the charity can start to profile the work they are doing in support of the cause. It’s an opportunity to post petitions, letter writing templates or lobbying reports about the campaign. This demonstrates to an audience who are engaged with the issue, but might not be engaged with the charity, that this is an organisation who are as passionate as they are. Even more importantly, it encourages an audience to see they can take action beyond the hash tag and do even more to support a cause they believe in. By joining in with the charity, they can take affirmative action and become part of a wider community who share common aims.

Of course, it is very hard to measure whether joining in with hash tag activism translates to financial gains for the charity. Except in rare circumstances, for example #NoMakeUpSelfie, it can be hard to link a donation with activities on Twitter or Facebook.

But what this kind of activity does achieve is a halo effect. By showing willingness to have these conversations and join in the campaign, charities are getting their message out there whilst showing solidarity with people who care. In doing this, they can profile their work, engage with a new audience and – hopefully – convert that audience into donors.

The power of storytelling

In the wake of the recent outburst of public anger that greeted the deportation of student Yashika Bagerathi, Owen Jones wrote an article exploring the importance of storytelling in raising awareness of human rights issues. In it, he explored how political activists campaigning on the deportation of asylum seekers all too often presented their argument through the use of impenetrable statistics and international legislation. What the Yashika case showed, he argued, was that telling a human story was far more successful in prompting action from the public.

His conclusion that people connect better with stories than with facts and statistics should not come as any surprise to those of us working in charity direct marketing. We understand that it is human stories that motivate people to give. After all, we are emotional human beings, not robots. As such, we empathise with the realities that other emotional human beings are facing.

We can tell the world about the number of refugees currently fleeing from Syria, or provide a series of statistics on cancer survival rates. But all too quickly, numbers become, well, just numbers. It’s hard to see the human face behind them. We can shake our collective heads in horror that there are over 2 million Syrian refuges fighting for survival. Or we can tell people about Nadia, the toddler whose life has been ripped apart, and is desperate for food and shelter. Who are our supporters more likely to give to? A graph, or a child and her mother? Similarly, we can tell supporters how a cancer charity helps 100,000s people in the UK every day. But those supporters will give to the woman who believes that without the support of her nurse, she would have lost all hope when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The reason the Yashika case caused such widespread outrage was because the young people passionately running her campaign – many of them her fellow students – understood what many campaigners and even charity marketers have all too often forgotten. They understood that Yashika isn’t a number – another example of a failed asylum claim. She is a young woman with a future, a life, a family – a young woman with hopes and dreams. People who previously may not have engaged with arguments around our asylum system heard that story, and responded emotionally. They listened to her story, and decided to act.

Statistics and research are important. All charity campaigns need to be underpinned by solid facts and evidence. But supporters or potential supporters will always be motivated by stories that provoke an emotional response. It’s those stories we need to be telling.