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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
An asteroid is set to pass so close to Earth it will be visible with binoculars
news
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Sauce Recruitment: Programme Sales Executive - Independent Distributor

£25000 - £28000 per annum + circa 28K + 20% bonus opportunity: Sauce Recruitme...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Are you an ambitious, money mot...

Guru Careers: Investment Writer / Stock Picker

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: A freelance Investment Writer / Stock Picker ...

Guru Careers: PPC Account Executive / Paid Search Executive

£20 - 24K + Benefits: Guru Careers: An enthusiastic PPC Account / Paid Search ...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project