New media charities: The digital battle to save Sierra Leone's children

Whether it's an online soap opera or cutting-edge film, Sophie Morris reports on how web-savvy charities are using the net to raise funds

Kroo Bay has everything you would expect from an online soap opera. The cross-generational cast of characters stretches from grandmother Elizabeth down to Madlyn, aged seven, and her big brother Chris. There is the town's football team, as well as Double K, a good-looking reggae duo who are working on their second album.

The action centres on a community hub; not a local bar but the local clinic, where the residents of Kroo Bay pile in for treatment of malaria, cholera, diphtheria and diarrhoea. One in four babies born in this village will die before they reach their fifth birthday. If they make it past five, they will still have to wade through the stagnant river that courses past their makeshift homes, running the risk of catching a fatal water-borne disease just to reach the other side of town.

Kroo Bay, you may have guessed, is no The O.C. spin-off. It is a real-life slum in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and the focus of Save the Children's latest ploy to communicate the work they do to potential donors. You can learn about Kroo Bay by watching one of the "webisodes", post messages for the residents on their profile pages and watch the renovation of the clinic as you donate money.

"It was intended to give a rounder view of life in Kroo Bay," explains Save the Children's Rachel Palmer, who came up with the concept. "It shows people getting on with life despite their problems. We wanted our supporters to experience the lives of the people we work with and build up a connection – my child plays football after school and so does the lad in Kroo Bay, for example."

Journalists and NGOs alike frequently come under fire for over-dramatising sensitive issues and relying on shocking images of malnourished children to tell a story or elicit a donation, but the quotidian fodder that makes up much of Kroo Bay's content is considered less newsworthy. As Palmer points out: "We're trying to get much deeper into the issues of the community. If we were trying to shock people we wouldn't be showing the football team."

There are two photo-journalists working in Kroo Bay to create each webisode. The fifth has just gone live and each is made up of 360-degree webcam images embedded with audio. In each scene you can click on a "hotspot", which will bring up a video or slideshow with more information. Some of these link through to a donation page or specific campaign that Save the Children is pushing.

The internet has emerged as a powerful communications tool for charities, which before had to rely on dreary direct mailouts and calls to journalists. The latter tactic has the added complication of trusting the journalist to send out the right message.

Save the Children has not dramatically increased the size of its web team, but multimedia has become part of most employees' day-to-day work, particularly those in campaigns and fundraising. Other organisations, including Amnesty International and Oxfam, are constantly expanding their web teams to harness the reach of the internet to their own ends: Facebook profiles, podcasts, presences in Second Life, blogs, videos, online petitions. Name your new media, they've got it covered.

The internet allows NGOs to generate and publish much more of their own material than ever before, but their supporters are also ripe sources of information. Matt Beard, the marketing director at Amnesty International, is working on a new website that will draw on the enthusiasm for user-generated information. "It will be a community site that works like a human-rights hub," he explains, "where people can upload their own comments and come together around human rights themes."

Amnesty already operates two microsites, unsuscribeme.org and irrepressible.org, which allow it to target potential supporters. Film, in particular, has stood out as an effective way to get their message across. This would have been impossible five years ago, when internet users were switching from dial-up to broadband, and watching anything more than a few seconds long online was a painful process.

Unsuscribeme.org uses social networking principles and is based on the premise that the war on terror has been a part of our lives since 9/11. "Using web terminology," explains Beard, "Unsuscribeme gives you the opportunity to say: 'No, I don't want to be part of that reality.'"

One of the site's most popular films is a re-enactment of water-boarding, the interrogation technique that has been used by CIA officials and at Guantanamo Bay, which George Bush has said is not torture. "It is an incredibly powerful film and effectively demolishes the view that water-boarding is not torture," says Beard. The video was uploaded onto the Amnesty site before the journalist Christopher Hitchens decided to have a go at water-boarding himself for the August edition of Vanity Fair.

As with Kroo Bay, the intention was not to shock, Beard says. "I know this is probably a hard sell, but that is never where we've been in our message and presentation. This was done to recreate reality. The primary motivator was not to shock, but to report."

NGOs are not yet shunning traditional media, but they are behaving more strategically. For example, Oxfam recently took the photojournalist Nick Danziger out to Somalia. The images he shot there were picked up by many news outlets, including Sky News and Reuters, but Oxfam did not have to rely on landing a sought-after magazine or broadcasting deal before the trip, because they were able to publish Danziger's photo essay on their own site. With all their staff on the ground, organisations such as Oxfam are often better placed to get images out of emergency situations than journalists are. What's more, their contacts and local knowledge will direct a journalist's access, and consequently the thrust of a story.

As with Kroo Bay, Amnesty and Oxfam want to develop closer relationships between their donors and beneficiaries, but this is fraught with problems. Oxfam's website hosts a blog by a humanitarian worker in Gaza, whose identity is protected.

Amnesty would like to put supporters in touch with the people on whose behalf they campaign, but often those people are in countries where internet traffic is monitored and such a link would put them at risk.

NGOs are throwing themselves with gusto behind the many tools Web 2.0 has brought, but it is difficult to ascertain which ones are having a direct impact on donations. According to Beard and Oxfam's Theo Ratcliff, clever elements of multimedia can do much to draw in potential supporters and educate them about the relevant issues and individual campaigns. How and when that might translate into an actual donation, however, is more difficult to track.

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