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Why Don’t You Donate for Syrian Refugees? Blame Bad Marketing

Why Don’t You Donate for Syrian Refugees? Blame Bad Marketing

Scott Harrison has helped to bring clean drinking water to over 6.3 million people worldwide. The founder and CEO of charity: water, one of the most well-known philanthropic organisations in the world, shares how his approach to running a non-profit — from innovation to strategy to partnerships — can be applied to any business to help create outstanding success. The New York Times recently took a look at effective (and non-effective) non-profit marketing, and shone a light on the work charity: water is doing to that end:

This summer, as you’re watching television or sifting through mail, you’re likely to come across charities asking for your money. And at some point, you’ll probably dig into your pocket to help victims of last year’s Ecuadorean earthquake, the continuing drought in Yemen or some other worthy cause.

It is statistically unlikely, however, that you’ll write a check to help Syrian refugees. Though the Syrian crisis is a huge and heartbreaking story, it has translated into relatively little charitable giving. One large relief organization, GlobalGiving, found that people were three times as likely to donate to victims of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal or the 2011 Japanese tsunami as to those fleeing the war in Syria. Other refugee causes fare even worse.

Which is surprising, because while you have probably never experienced an earthquake, visited Yemen or Nepal, or been personally affected by many of the causes you support, it’s quite likely you have ancestors who were refugees or migrants themselves, and odds are good that you’re working or living near émigrés and their families.

So why does one of the most important and heart-wrenching issues have so much trouble attracting donations?

Blame bad marketing.

A few years ago, a pair of social scientists in Britain began wondering why some charities were more popular than others. The researchers, the wife-and-husband team of Jennifer van Heerde-Hudson and David Hudson, had spent years studying the ways charities solicited donations. Conventional wisdom held that the most effective appeals emphasized innocent victims.

“Children who have lost their homes, starving families, the heartstrings thing,” Mr. Hudson told me. “Ads that convey ‘If you don’t donate, people will die.’ That’s what everyone believes works.”

But when the researchers looked at nonphilanthropic industries, they saw the opposite. Nike doesn’t tell people to exercise because otherwise they’ll get fat and have a heart attack. Instead, the company uses stories of amputees running marathons to make you believe you can transform your life, if you just buy the right pair of shoes.

So Ms. van Heerde-Hudson and Mr. Hudson created two marketing campaigns for a charity in Bangladesh. The first showed an image of a sick and malnourished child and slogans like “Please donate before it’s too late.”

The other hardly mentioned which problem the charity was trying to solve. Instead, it showed a smiling child holding a “Future Doctor” sign, and proclaiming that “all of us sharing a little more can make a big difference.” It sought donations to “educate the next teacher, farmer or doctor.”

“The second ad was a huge success,” Mr. Hudson told me. “The data was clear. If you can trigger a sense of hope, donations go up.’’

Put differently, it’s not entirely your fault you aren’t giving to Syrian refugees. You just haven’t been manipulated properly.

To figure out if there’s a better method, I began asking charitable organizations who they thought was the most innovative marketer in philanthropy. Everyone pointed to a group named Charity: Water.

Charity: Water, which raises funds to deliver clean water in developing nations, began a decade ago by deliberately modeling itself on companies like Apple, Nike and Silicon Valley firms. “When we started, the biggest problem was that my friends said giving to charity was really depressing,” said Scott Harrison, who founded Charity: Water in 2006 after a career promoting nightclubs. “So we came up with some rules: No pictures of crying children or people with flies in their eyes. No using guilt or shame. Only use mottos that people would want to wear on T-shirts.”

One of Charity: Water’s most successful marketing appeals tells the story of a 15-year-old named Natalia, the president of a water committee in her village in Mozambique. In ads, Natalia stands in front of a well built with Charity: Water funds, arms crossed defiantly and explains how she previously walked long distances to get water, which meant she often missed school. Now, with a well in the center of her community, she makes it to school every day.

“Every piece of marketing has a hero,” said Lauren Letta, Charity: Water’s chief operating officer. “Maybe the hero is a girl in a village. Maybe it’s a drilling rig operator. Or, maybe, if you make a donation, the hero is you.”

Marketing is the art of telling stories so enthralling that people lose track of their wallets. And every marketer knows such stories can’t be too complicated. So another tenet at Charity: Water is that solutions need to be presented in simple ways. “Our approach is that water is binary,” Mr. Harrison told me. “People are either drinking clean water, which is good, or they aren’t, which is bad. We want to present an easy choice.”

That strategy — which the group propagates through online ads, social media campaigns, direct email solicitations and even the occasional billboard — has been remarkably effective. Over the past decade, Charity: Water has raised $252 million and has supported 23,000 projects in villages and rural areas across Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

It has become a cause celeb among tech entrepreneurs, Hollywood stars and the Twitterati. Unusually, 47 percent of its donors are millennials (most charities struggle to hit 10 percent).

But Charity: Water has also drawn criticism from people who feel the group has oversimplified a complicated problem. Water isn’t actually binary. Is it unequivocally good if Charity: Water builds wells in areas where terror groups are active? Is it wise to emphasize water over other philanthropic causes like vaccines or schools? Does it make sense to build wells in remote regions, where Charity: Water works, rather than large cities, where many more impoverished people reside?

“There’s lots of people who think Charity: Water is working on the wrong issue, or they’re telling the wrong stories,” said Patrice Martin, who helps run, a nonprofit organization that has worked with Charity: Water. “But what they’ve done is get Americans, especially millennials, interested in the lives of people on the other side of the world. We should be learning from them.”

That said, it can be hard to see how to apply some of the group’s lessons to really complicated issues, like Syrian refugees.

“With an earthquake, it’s easy; everyone is an innocent victim, and they have a problem that will eventually end,” said Amanda Seller of the International Rescue Committee, who notes that even the phrase “innocent victim” unfairly segments philanthropy. “Wars and man-made disasters are really hard,” Ms. Seller said, “because sometimes you can’t tell the victims from the perpetrators or how long it’ll last.”

What’s more, when it comes to companies like Nike, we’re comfortable with half-truths. We know that buying sneakers isn’t really going to transform us into marathoners.

But we’re less forgiving with charities, which we expect to be both philanthropists and educators, untainted by marketing sleight of hand.

However, I think that’s a mistake. We need more philanthropies that raise funds by mimicking the tactics of Madison Avenue.

I went to the headquarters of Charity: Waters a few weeks ago and asked a few of its leaders to critique some Syrian refugee fund-raising campaigns. With the acknowledgment that they are not expert on this topic, they saw a number of things they would change, focusing not on the message, but the way it’s delivered.

“These are all pictures of sad kids, crying women, scary statistics,” Mr. Harrison said. “What kind of success stories can I tell? And what is success? How do we know when things are getting better?”

If Charity: Water were to start a campaign for Syrian refugees, it would most likely feature a photo of a child who has carved out a successful life in the chaos. It would be hopeful and optimistic. If you donated to Charity: Refugee, you would be told precisely what you’re buying — two blankets, say, and 12 meals, as well as three picture books — and then you would receive photos of those exact supplies in refugees’ hands, something most charities don’t do because they don’t want to be constrained in how funds are spent.

The Charity: Refugee campaign would not try to educate you about global politics, or Syria’s complex tribalism. It would, instead, make you feel as if you’ve made the world a better place with just a few dollars. It would help you sleep at night, instead of giving you more to worry about.

It would, in other words, be a great piece of marketing. It might even have a catchy phrase that looks great on a T-shirt. And it would persuade more people to donate. Which, right now, might be what matters most.