Save the Children hit the headlines last month when the charity spoke out against pop star Madonna’s planned adoption of a Malawian child by arguing that it could be counterproductive to remove children from their own culture and family.
It was a controversial move but being provocative is nothing new for the organisation, which is currently running its annual “Save the Children Week”. It has long used images and marketing that push emotional buttons to highlight a cause.
One recent Save the Children print ad campaign (left) showed a graphic image of a mother clutching a distressed boy following the news that his uncle has been killed in the strikes on the Gaza strip by Israel.
But Adrian Lovett, director of campaigns and communications at Save the Children, says that the ads are not gratuitous. They have clear business objectives: to help the charity fundraise and voice its political beliefs.
He explains: “We need to raise some money in this more difficult time for all charities. We want to make sure we’re fighting our way through rather than being pushed back.
“There’s a need for us to make ourselves as visible as we can as an organisation that’s calling for change. We do this by asking the public to join us in pushing the decision makers, whether they are in government or sometimes companies, to do their part to achieve change for children.”
With this in mind, the charity’s ads using the Gaza image included a number that people could text to support the charity’s call for a ceasefire.
The combination of old-fashioned print with new mobile technology worked together to produce a response from 200,000 people within 48 hours, which led to the delivery of a petition to Downing Street. Lovett adds: “It was all about live participation and action.”
The texts also gave Save the Children a chance to return to respondents, first to thank them for participation in the ceasefire campaign and then to ask for regular support. This led to 9,000 respondents agreeing to contribute regular donations to the charity.
Converting new supporters is important for charities such as Save the Children. Regular direct debit donations are predicted to suffer this year as consumers scrutinise their bank statements in a recession.
Save the Children is hoping that by raising its profile it can continue to attract new supporters as well as communicating with current donors to prevent them cancelling direct debits.
The Charity Report from research company Mintel forecasts that as people cut down on their spending, charitable giving will fall. It claims: “In times of economic slowdown, discretionary spend such as charity donations is the first to be cut from consumers’ budgets. Charity direct debits are particularly vulnerable as consumers are forced to look at their bank statements.”
Lovett claims his charity hasn’t seen a decline in regular contributions but he admits it is being more “business like” about finding ways to raise money.
To this end, Save the Children has begun a heavy PR push to ensure it is using the media to remain visible at all times. It adopted a very high profile during coverage of the recent Italian earthquake, talking about its work with children. It also led a peaceful protest march the weekend before the G20 politicians gathered and Lovett himself blogged live from the event.
This profile raising has provoked a mixed reaction. Philip Johnston, a columnist at The Daily Telegraph, declared he was stopping his direct debit to Save the Children because of what he saw as a “political stunt” by the charity after it announced it was giving out grants to families in the UK for the first time.
Johnston argued that Save the Children’s “advertising pitch” asking Gordon Brown to give an extra 3bn to aid poor British families was nothing more than meddling “political posturing”. Lovett argues that it is the role of charities to call for change, but its recently appointed head of UK campaigning appears to rile the likes of Johnston.
YouGov’s PublicIndex, which monitors charities on a monthly basis, does indicate however that Save the Children is right to do some work on raising its profile.
Just 6% of respondents to the PublicIndex research remembered anything about Save the Children in the “media recall” for March. This compares to 12% for Oxfam and 13% for the NSPCC. The positive buzz around Save the Children is pretty consistent but the NSPCC, which is known for its hard-hitting campaigns, has a higher positive buzz.
YouGov director of public sector research Gavin Ellison says: “This does set out the challenge of raising the profile and indicates some evidence that Save the Children currently trails others operating in a similar landscape.”
Lovett argues that the charity’s future strategy must involve “connecting with people” through a variety of messages.
Its Kroo Bay project is an example of how it’s attempting to show the results of charitable giving. Fundraisers can see video footage of the community in Sierra Leone showing the new Save the Children-funded clinic, which Lovett argues helps donors to understand that their money is making a difference.
He says: “It’s all too easy for people to say their donations didn’t make a difference. It’s about people experiencing the whole of Save the Children, not just campaigns.”
Using innovative marketing methods will be a continuing theme for the charity throughout 2009 and beyond. It won’t stop campaigning just because of media criticism when this can help it raise its profile with consumers.
Ultimately, Lovett says that everything the charity does must go towards one non-controversial aim – raising funds to help children around the world.
Save the Children’s marketing innovations
– The Mintel Charity research report predicted that the charity sector would need to embrace new ways to encourage donations. Save the Children has introduced a texting service giving seven different options. People can text the word “Water” for example, which takes 5 from the texter’s account to provide a water filter for a child or family in Sierra Leone.
– The Kroo Bay project also uses digital media to engage with the public. It broadcasts “webisodes” to show what needs to be done to help this community in Sierra Leone and tells the stories of individuals living there. People can sign up to email alerts. The charity claims this approach has encouraged more donations to Save the Children.
– For “Save the Children Week”, which runs from 26 April until 2 May, the charity has asked the public to take part in its “Go Tea Potty” campaign by drinking tea in unusual locations to raise money through sponsorship or donations.
In the news:
Madonna in Malawi
Pop star Madonna’s attempted adoption of toddler Mercy James in Malawi was met with vocal opposition from Save the Children. While many in the US were supportive of the adoption, Save the Children’s head of news, Dominic Nutt, made international headlines by talking to many media outlets including Sky News, CNN and the BBC about his concerns over the issue.
Following the earthquake in Italy earlier this month, Save the Children deployed a team to L’Aquila to assess the needs of children in the region. It publicised this trip on Twitter and spoke to the BBC about children being emotionally affected by the earthquake. It also featured in The Mirror and The Guardian newspapers, among others.
The charity was seen leading a peaceful protest the weekend before the G20 summit, campaigning for more to be done for the poorest nations. The protest was covered globally by news networks. Save the Children ran a live blog from inside the event, updated its Twitter feed, and videos were posted on YouTube.