PUBLIC Speaking: Don’t Assume People Care About Your Charity: Understanding Charitable Engagement

Two years ago, we had the viral phenomenon of the Ice Bucket Challenge, raising money and awareness for ALS. This year’s charity success story is the #22kill Challenge, which asks individuals to share a video of themselves doing push-ups on social media in order to raise the profile of veteran suicide, post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues.

Following successful charity engagements like these, business leaders and marketing departments inevitably are left asking themselves the same question: “How can we create a viral campaign of our own?” Yet understanding what causes campaigns to go viral can be elusive. Even when the ALS Association tried to repeat the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge the following year, it flopped. In 2015, the event brought in less than 1% of the donations from its previous run. Yet, in other cases, annual engagement campaigns—think Movember—continue to grow year-over-year, engaging more people and bringing in more money.

To understand mass charity engagement, the key is to look beyond a cause or organization’s core audience. Any social issue or charity likely has a core audience of supporters who care deeply about it. These supporters will engage with campaigns because they’re truly invested in the success of the mission. Beyond that group, however, engagement drops off—and fast. In order to engage with the broader public, cause marketers need to ask themselves a difficult question: they need to honestly and objectively consider why someone with no affinity to an issue, who’s already being bombarded by other campaigns for equally worthy causes, would want to engage in an action, share a message or, ultimately, donate to a new cause. This honest reflection is crucial in order to reach beyond that core group of passionate supporters.

Outside of their chosen causes, most individuals won’t engage in other charity initiatives simply because they want to make a difference. For large-scale adoption, individuals need to enjoy engaging with a cause and participating in a campaign. The Ice Bucket Challenge, Movember and #22kill all have one critical thing in common: they captured people’s imaginations and played to something that was not only fun and outside most people’s daily behaviours but also something those same people ultimately wanted to do.

A campaign needs to act as a benevolent nudge, giving individuals the social license they need to participate in a stigmatized or atypical activity. Guys already want to grow moustaches, but they hold back because they care what others may think. People want to show off how many push-ups they can do on social media, but don’t want to seem self-absorbed. And lastly, people want to pour a bucket of ice water on their heads, but they need a socially sanctioned reason to act a little crazy.

Charity can grant permission for people to do something they already want to do but otherwise wouldn’t. If we understand this when creating charity events and engagements, we can better generate interest and maybe even create a mass movement. 

Cole Banning is an Account Manager at PUBLIC Inc. Follow him on Twitter @coledsbanning.

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