22 May 2013 | By Steven Buckley
Britons are more likely to donate to campaigns that help people survive, than thrive. At Christian Aid we decided to concentrate our new ad campaign on the upside.
In May 2013, television viewers in the UK might have caught a glimpse of an ad shot by Christian Aid to mark our annual week-long fundraising drive.
The campaign, filmed on location in Sierra Leone, depicts the difference a solar freezer could make to the life of a local fisherman, helping him not only feed his family, but then market his catch and maybe even open a small restaurant.
An end to poverty is possible
Instead of grinding poverty, the ad features smiling faces, energetic children and upbeat music – our attempt to tell the true story of positive intervention.
However the fact remains: UK-based NGOs, seeking donations from the British public for development and aid work overseas today, face something of an obstacle course in presenting the case that urgent need still exists.
In choosing to tell the true story of a positive intervention made through one of our partner agencies in the life of the York Island community, Christian Aid has had to walk a delicate line, leaving viewers with the sense that an end to poverty is possible - some of the world's fastest growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa - but that real needs still exist that Britons can help to alleviate. But the million dollar question is how.
Mobile phones and climate change
My team recently conducted research involving groups most likely to support Christian Aid. The findings suggested that while people were perfectly willing to donate to help people survive, they were more reticent to put their hands in their pockets to help people thrive.
Any footage showing a poor person with a mobile phone – or colour television – would be counterproductive, we were told. That response rang true recently when I gave a talk using one of the case studies for Christian Aid Week that features a mobile phone project. There was an audible gasp from the group on first mention of phones.
It was only when we'd watched the film together and discussed the project in detail that they could see for themselves the usefulness of mobile phones in delivering early warnings to communities exposed to extreme weather events as a result of climate change.
We don't have that luxury with a television advert. It has to do the job of announcing Christian Aid Week, support our army of volunteer collectors and motivate people to give. All in just 30 seconds.
An ad to be proud of
We would never resort to an advert that portrays people living in poverty as people without their own dignity. The question for us was whether we could move away from a Christian Aid Week advertising message that had been fairly simple – 'sending money over there' – to a more complex message about food security, hope and independence.
It's an age-old question, the dissonance between rhetoric and reality in advertising, can we talk about our work and world view without depressing income? The potential supporters we discussed it with said yes. That was enough to take the risk and make the ad.
So far, the advert has been well received by the public and our volunteer collectors. Perhaps more importantly still, our colleagues and the community in Sierra Leone like the film. As someone said to me on Twitter: 'This is an ad you can be proud to show your beneficiaries.'
Proof of how successful we have been will come when we discover whether this year's fundraising week has reached or exceeded the target of £12.7m. That's the hard reality: if the film changes perceptions but doesn't support the donations that are urgently needed then we'll need to think again.
Fundraising and development challenges
The challenges that we and other agencies face in tapping into the generosity of the British public start at home. As The Guardian newspaper recently remarked, the economic climate today is much tougher than it was eight years ago when Make Poverty History galvanised public opinion and G8 leaders at Gleneagles delivered on trade and debt, or said they would.
Africa too has changed. Once the graveyard of good intentions, it is fast changing its image. The former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan announced in an annual progress report last week that there was 'good reason to be optimistic'.
Nearly half of the countries there have been identified as resource rich by the IMF, and have 'sustained high growth and improved their citizens' daily lives'.
It is not all good news though. The same report goes on to say that in many African countries, rising inequality is slowing the rate at which growth reduces poverty. 'Countries across Africa are becoming richer, but whole sections of society are being left behind,' it warns.
This is the complexity we need to get across in our stories. While there will always be a need for advertising that emphasises desperation – in response to natural disasters for instance – we think it's time to try and present aid and development in a different way.
Helping communities help themselves
In our ad, the sun may be shining, and the participants – all local villagers - may look buoyant. But more than 60% of Sierra Leoneans live below the poverty line, the average life expectancy is 48, and malnutrition ranks among the world's highest, with acute malnutrition at or above the emergency level of 15% of children under five years old.
Helping alleviate poverty is not simply about feeding the hungry, it's about enabling communities to help themselves. That is the message that needs to come across loud and clear.
Donate nowPlease donate now to help some of the world's poorest families get enough to eat. For good.
Find out more
Find out more about Christian Aid Week and watch our video about the making of the advert.
Christian Aid in Sierra Leone.
Steven's blog also appeared in the Guardian.