Gordon Brown’s refusal to share a conference table with Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe at the UN summit in Portugal signals his renewed commitment to tackle key humanitarian issues. If only the not-for-profit sector showed the same intent.
When the tsunami struck on Boxing Day 2004, a tidal wave of compassion hit the UK. An unprecedented surge of giving amounted to the equivalent of £1 for every man, woman and child. In fundraising terms, the tsunami was the “perfect storm”: it struck at such a time, location and on a scale of devastation that connected with us all. During the primetime Christmas period, watching television became a daily diet of traumatised British holidaymakers, resorts we recognised laid waste and the almost inconceivable sixfigure (and rising) death toll.
It was also a humanitarian disaster not caused by man or corrupt governments and harnessed a latent charitable impulse because it was ultimately fixable. True many lives were lost, but aid was forthcoming, homes could be rebuilt, resorts restored to their former glory, early warning systems be put in place. Job done.
On October 8, 2005, when an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale struck near the Pakistan-India border, the response was very different. The mountainous terrain was less familiar, as were the victims – 17,000 children died in the devastation, but no holiday resorts were affected, no Brits were involved, and for us, it was just another day. While the victims of that earthquake were facing a winter without shelter, food or water, we contemplated the fate of Sven Goran Eriksson ahead of the World Cup.
What do these two events tell us about fundraising generally? That the strongest driver behind any act of giving is the selfish gene. In the collective consciousness, global warming is like the tsunami. It’s a real and present threat that floods our homes, dampens our barbecues and rains on our parades. There’s a widespread feeling of connection and high awareness around the cause.
In the face of most dangers, fight or flight is the natural response. But there is no escape from global warming. We have to stand and fight. For the marketing community, this presents an inconvenient truth: however you look at it, it’s going to hurt.
So it has tried to sell the idea of “painless”. This solution isn’t just disingenuous. It’s dangerous.
A new carbon currency has been created, making it possible to offset and, thereby, mitigate the effects of our own behaviour by paying others to take the responsibility. In propagating the notion that consumers won’t have to consume less to save the planet, we are selling a fallacy. And marketers make that fallacy palatable.
Carbon offsetting has a disproportionate share of voice over aid and development precisely because it appeals to the selfish gene. It says “for very little effort, you can do your bit towards the ultimate survival of the human race”. This can only serve to depress fundraising efforts in humanitarian situations where there is a more immediate threat to human survival – as the lukewarm response to recent Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeals for Darfur and Chad showed.
A nation urged to play the fantasy carbon market in the service of tenor 20-year goals may, paradoxically, become more disconnected from the reality of daily life on this planet. Which is why I’d like to see government, humanitarian and environmental charities convene regularly to promote proportionality in the UK fundraising market, not faddism. More discussion around the conflicting claims, not a free-market scrum. And a more active management of share of voice.
On the day I write, 4,000 refugees are illegally crossing the South African border from Zimbabwe, joining the 3 million already displaced. Today, in Darfur and Chad, hundreds of people are arriving at camps, traumatised by violence only to be threatened with starvation and disease. And 1.5 million people affected by flooding in 18 countries across sub-Saharan Africa urgently need food, water and medical supplies.
Yet as these tragedies unfold, it is a pity that the not-for-profit campaign with the most media visibility is the bathetic one that shows people trudging carbon footprints across their living rooms and airport departure halls.
Dan Douglass is executive creative director at Meteorite