Charity begins online

We'll cross the road to avoid a chugger, so how can fundraisers boost their dwindling donations? The savviest organisations are fighting back with blogs, viral videos and interactive billboards. Rhodri Marsden reports on how giving's going digital

Has the recession transformed us into a bunch of hardened, miserly skinflints? Or are we as benevolent and big-hearted as ever? Mary Portas, a retail adviser and presenter of the TV series Mary Queen of Charity Shops, claims that "our cultural G-spot has moved; it used to be greed, but now it's giving," while Naomi Levine, director of the NYU Center for Philanthropy, believes that young people are increasingly willing to donate their time or money to charitable causes. But a study by the website leapanywhere.com has revealed that two-thirds of us will go out of our way to avoid charity workers on the high street, and an even greater proportion of us will lie to them – either claiming that we've got no spare change, or that we've already given money to their colleague 20 yards down the road. This frugality is evident in the accounts of many British charities: 52 per cent say they've been affected by the recession, and even giants like Oxfam are suffering, with donations falling by 12 per cent so far this year.

It's not entirely surprising that we're opting to hang on to our hard-earned cash for an imminent rainy day, rather than signing some direct debit form on a clipboard while waiting for a friend outside Starbucks. But the difficult situation charities find themselves in has been exacerbated by our rapidly changing response to traditional forms of advertising. With print media sales declining, more television channels to choose from and direct mail responses – traditionally the lifeblood of charities – falling year on year, it's becoming harder for charities to get their messages across. This has led to many having to re-evaluate their whole approach to connecting with us, the potential donors: are we so overwhelmed with marketing messages that we're unlikely to respond to something we haven't specifically asked for? And if so, could we be reached via the internet?

Those who spend time on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace will regularly be asked by friends to donate to nominated good causes at sites like justgiving.com, and charities are beginning to catch on to the persuasive power of online communities to give consciences a nudge. Jonathan Wilson of Red Bee Media, an agency that has recently worked with ActionAid to develop a viral campaign to encourage donations, believes that the web has to form an integral part of any modern promotional work, and that peer endorsement is crucial to success. "A television advertisement is never going to be as powerful as, say, your friend enthusing about something – and if they're enthusing about a charity, you're less likely to respond cynically to that message." And when personal recommendations are transplanted into the fast-moving, almost dizzying world of social media, thousands of people can – at least in theory – be reached in the space of a few minutes.

Recent months have shown the power wielded by celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross and Hugh Jackman, who only need to mention a charity on their Twitter pages for a flood of donations to immediately roll in. But pestering high-profile figures to patronise your cause is unlikely to yield any response, so marketing departments have been exploring other way of grabbing attention and sustaining it to a point where people are likely to donate. Campaigns such as Red Bee's current one for ActionAid (which delivers a series of comical personalised video messages after you've donated £2 online) or last year's interactive billboard strategy by Oxfam (where winning slogans submitted online were displayed on digital billboards across London) are just two that have caught people's imagination, and platforms such as the video-sharing site YouTube and photo-sharing site Flickr have also been used by charities for one-off projects. But Rachel Beer, founding partner of the Beautiful World agency and a fundraising expert, believes that it's by playing the long game and by involving themselves deeply in social media that charities will benefit the most. "When anyone asks for money in a short, sharp burst," she says, "they're not building a real relationship with the donor. Charities need long-term support, and social media are an absolute gift in terms of keeping people on board – as long as they are used properly."

Habitat found themselves on the end of stinging criticism last week when their official Twitter account was used to try and sell furniture deals to people following the political developments in Iran, and it's these kind of pitfalls that Beer's agency is dedicated to helping charities avoid. "There are already a huge number of charities on Twitter," she says, "but there's a lot of uncertainty, and most of them are just trying it out – there might be one person in their office who's set it up – and it's certainly not integrated into their overall strategy." Steve Bridger, who has advised charities such as Amnesty International UK and Breast Cancer Care on their online activities, can see charities tentatively waiting for the "gloriously disruptive" world of digital media to settle down. "But they should stop waiting for things to be perfect, and just embrace the messiness of the web," he says. "They have no choice but to change their mind-set."

So which charities are already managing to use cutting-edge tools effectively? John Carnell, founder and chief executive of Bullying UK, has become known as a "tweeting CEO" following his embrace of the 140-character medium of Twitter, and he underlines the importance of such services to the charity's cause. "This approach has been at the heart of our work since the beginning," he says, "so it's interesting to watch it become the next big thing. The public appreciate honest dialogue, and that's one of the reasons our Twitter feed is often ranked in the top 1,000 worldwide." The British Red Cross have created a number of alternate reality games, or ARGs, to involve gamers in the work of the charity and show them the problems faced by the people they're trying to help, while the US-based charity: water embeds video streams of new wells being drilled in real time on their website, turning its work into a perpetual news story. And the Mara Triangle (a charity encouraging conservation in the Mara National Reserve in Kenya) is another pioneering group, according to Beer. "It's a great example of how a tiny charity with no budget can raise money from a global audience by putting out fascinating content across many different channels."

By talking about themselves engagingly, making themselves available to the public and showing a willingness to interact, forward-looking charities are making connections with the public that would have been almost impossible in the past. But what happens when we're finally asked to put our hands in our pockets and donate? Is the hard work in cyberspace likely to persuade us to spend a few minutes laboriously going through an online credit card procedure? Beer believes it is. "Charities are much more sensitive than brands," she says. "They know their supporters in a way that, say, a trainer manufacturer never will, so they're very tuned in to their audience. They aren't going to just go in asking them for money. And a community of 15,000 people who are genuinely interested in a cause is worth a lot more than 100,000 people who are only mildly so."

It will require a leap of faith for charities to persist with online awareness campaigns where the benefits aren't immediately apparent. But if they do, it seems possible that their fortunes could improve. And the general public might be shown to be a little more generous than we thought we were.

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